Ivybridge Community College: Examination Pressure — [Sir Graham Brady in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 6:17 pm on 7th May 2019.

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Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education) 6:17 pm, 7th May 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I congratulate my hon. Friend Sir Gary Streeter on securing the debate, and the pupils at Ivybridge Community College—particularly Lucy, Amelia, Evie, Ela, Lilana, Izzy, Annabelle, Nell, Ella, Katy, Katie and Cameron—on providing such clear and articulate views on this important topic. I recall visiting the college some years ago and opening an excellent maths department. It is an outstanding school with a high proportion of pupils being entered for the EBacc combination of core academic GCSEs.

I agree with many of the points that the pupils made to my hon. Friend, including that mental health is about not just treatment, but prevention. There has been a lot of focus on the significant investment that the Government are making in increasing specialist children and young people’s mental health services. The NHS long-term plan announced that by 2023-24 an additional 345,000 children and young people aged up to 25 will receive mental health support via NHS-funded mental health services and new mental health support teams, as referred to by my hon. Friend. Mental health services will continue to receive a growing share of the NHS budget, with funding set to grow by at least £2.3 billion a year by 2023-24. Spending on children and young people’s mental health services will grow faster than adult services, and faster than other NHS spending. That investment will go a long way towards tackling the sort of waiting times highlighted by my hon. Friend.

The trailblazer areas testing our Green Paper proposals include some testing about how to achieve waiting times of a maximum of four weeks. But the trailblazers also focus on prevention. The mental health support teams we are introducing will be linked to groups of schools and colleges, bringing expertise in dealing with milder and more moderate conditions, precisely to provide fast, local responses to issues as they arise. It is a huge undertaking. The teams will introduce a new, trained workforce, eventually numbering in its thousands, to provide support in the more preventive way envisaged by the young people of Ivybridge college.

The preventive aspects of our reforms do not stop there. The Department is providing up to £95 million between 2019 and 2024 to support the delivery of the Green Paper proposals, including the costs of a significant training programme for senior mental health leads, to help schools to put whole-school approaches to mental health in place.

The Ivybridge pupils emphasised the importance of PSHE to my hon. Friend. Our reforms in that area, making a new relationships and health education curriculum compulsory in all state-funded schools from September 2020, are probably the most significant preventive step of all. Health education includes a new requirement for all pupils to be taught about mental health. The aim of making the subject compulsory is to bring the quality and consistency that the pupils are calling for, ensuring that pupils are taught the right framework of knowledge to help them to lead a mentally healthy lifestyle and deal with the challenges they face.

The new subject will include content such as understanding emotions, identifying where someone is experiencing signs of poor mental health, simple self-care, and how and when to seek support. Schools will be required to teach the new subjects from September 2020, but we are encouraging schools to get under way sooner. We already have hundreds of schools signed up as early adopters, with more schools registering every day. To help schools to teach the new subjects effectively, we recently announced an additional £6 million in 2019-20 to design and develop the training and resources that schools need.

We are also building the evidence on what other support for wellbeing works in schools. Our children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing research programme is one of the largest studies of its kind in the world. Thousands of children and young people will learn how to use a range of innovative techniques to promote good mental health and wellbeing.

I was not surprised to hear the views of young people that social media can be a force for good in relation to mental health—although I was impressed by the range of apps that my hon. Friend is familiar with. Social media is part of life and relationships for young people, but for it to be helpful we need to make sure that the online environment is as safe as possible. The Government’s recent online harms White Paper set out a range of measures, detailing how we will tackle online harms and setting clear responsibilities for technology companies to keep UK citizens, and especially children, safe.

We also need to equip young people with the knowledge to use the internet and social media safely, understanding how to deal with the different behaviours they will encounter online. That is why, to support the teaching of the relationships and health education content, we are developing detailed guidance on teaching about all aspects of internet safety, to help schools deliver the new subjects in a co-ordinated and coherent way.

We know that all kinds of bullying, whether in school or online, can have long-term effects on mental health as well as immediate impacts on pupils. The Government have sent a clear message to schools that bullying for any reason is unacceptable. All schools are legally required to have a behaviour policy with measures to prevent all forms of bullying. Relationships education will also include content on tackling bullying. To support schools further, we are providing more than £2.8 million to projects run by anti-bullying organisations such as the Anti-Bullying Alliance and the Diana Award.

My hon. Friend also talked about exam stress, which obviously is a particular issue at this time of year, with hundreds of thousands of teenagers up and down the country preparing to sit their GCSEs, A-levels and other exams. I take this opportunity to wish all those students, including those at Ivybridge, all the very best with their exams.

I would beg to differ from my hon. Friend on one point, when he says that exam stress was not much of an issue in the 1960s and 1970s. I think that exams are inherently stressful, for any generation. Perhaps my hon. Friend has forgotten, but certainly my own experience in the 1970s was that sitting my O-levels and A-levels was a challenging time. I know that for some students that pressure can get too much and can tip over into real mental health problems. Clearly that is a matter for concern, and the support that I have described is there to help those young people.

However, for very many young people the level of stress created by exams is manageable, so long as they are well supported by their schools, families and peers. Research shows that there is a clear difference between exam stress and exam anxiety, which is a cause for concern. Recent research found that young people recognise that exams can be a time of pressure and want their school to support them, especially on how best to revise and prepare for those exams. We trust schools to provide that guidance, and there is help to support them to do so. Ofqual support includes a blog aimed at teachers and a guide for students on coping with exam pressure, produced with Professor Dave Putwain from Liverpool John Moores University.

My hon. Friend mentioned that two of the students at Ivybridge had talked about not wanting to feel that they are in competition with their classmates. He also invited me to comment on the fact that there are many successful people who did not do well in their exams. He is quite right; no student should be made to feel that their life chances are over because they did badly in an exam. However, as my right hon. Friend Secretary of State said in his recent article on the subject, not many of those people

“would say that it isn’t important to do as well as you can.”

Few people succeed without preparing and working hard. All anyone can expect of our young people over the next few weeks is that they do their best.

Doing as well as you can does not necessarily come at the expense of others, and certainly not your classmates. It is fundamental to any qualification that it tests individual performance. Each young person will take that qualification forward with them into later life as evidence of what they know and can do. I also believe that it is right to expose young people to a certain level of competition, to help build the resilience that will help them to make a success of their adult lives, but that does not mean that schools should not foster a collaborative spirit and encourage team working during the school year. Indeed, I would hope that all schools are doing exactly that.

That brings me to an element of our preventive work that is especially pertinent, given that this debate has been inspired by young people taking an interest in mental health and helping each other out. We know that young people turn to their friends and peers first when they have concerns about mental health. Peer support programmes can be an effective part of a whole-school approach to mental wellbeing, as well as in tackling bullying and supporting each other with their exams. We are working with the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families to pilot different approaches to peer support, to help more schools to develop or improve their own programmes.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and the pupils of Ivybridge Community College for giving me the opportunity to set out just how much we are doing to promote mental wellbeing, as well as to increase access to specialist services. I hope they are reassured that what we are doing will go a long way to help schools and young people themselves play their part in meeting the challenge of improving the nation’s mental health.

Question put and agreed to.