A fifth of education professionals say pupils have attempted suicide because of the pressure they are under, findings show.
A poll by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) has found that almost half (48 per cent) of education professionals say pupils in their school have self-harmed due to stress.
The survey of more than 400 ATL members – released on the second day of the ATL annual conference in Liverpool – also revealed that just over four in 10 (43 per cent) respondents said that students suffered from eating disorders.
The poll comes ahead of a motion today calling on the ATL executive to campaign for all pupils to have access to an appropriately trained, dedicated counsellor.
In all, 81 members of education staff surveyed said that they were aware of pupils attempting suicide in an effort to combat stress. Of those, 18 worked in primary schools.
One respondent, a member of support staff at a secondary academy in London said: “I have seen a huge increase in physical symptoms of stress and incidents of self-harm. Suicidal thoughts have escalated beyond control.”
The survey also showed that nearly nine in 10 (88 per cent) respondents felt that pressure on pupils was the main cause for their low self-esteem, while a similar number (84 per cent) said that young people appeared anxious.
Samantha Barlow, a mentor at a Manchester primary school, told researchers: “The government and authorities are solely interested in levels and grades, and have put a lot of pressure on children as young as six to become anxious about exams.”
The research also revealed that almost nine in 10 education staff considered testing and exams to be the greatest cause of pupil stress.
A headteacher at a Norfolk primary school described mental health issues as “the biggest barrier to academic progress”, while a school counsellor in Warwickshire said the assessment system and time spent in front of a computer meant it was “not surprising they’re getting increasingly mentally ill”.
Speaking ahead of the conference motion, Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL, said blame lay at the door of the government for the pressure felt by pupils.
“It is horrifying that young people feel under so much pressure that many are self-harming and contemplating suicide. Education staff are increasingly trying to fill a gap left by drastic cuts to services such as CAMHS.
“The government bears responsibility for much of this stress which appears to stem from a test-focused, over-crowded curriculum. ATL believes that the government’s one-size-fits-all approach to school and exams disengages and fails many students.
She added: “ATL wants all schools to have access to trained professionals to support pupils, and an education system which motivates and engages learners, instead of one which causes many young people to feel under constant pressure.”
A Department for Education spokesman said: “We are investing £1.5 million in peer support schemes to help children develop support networks in schools and trialling a scheme with NHS England to establish single points of contact for schools to make mental health support more joined up and readily available when it’s needed.
“Tests are a key part of ensuring young people master the skills they need to reach their potential and succeed in life. But we have taken real steps to ensure they are not on a constant treadmill of revision and testing, including scrapping January modules, decoupling AS levels and removing resits from league tables.”