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'They're anxious in ways they wouldn't have been 20 years ago': Teachers say Leaving Cert stress on the rise

As the Leaving Cert begins tomorrow, teachers and education experts are warning of growing anxiety among students.

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AS THE LEAVING Certificate begins tomorrow, concerns have been raised at the level of stress students are experiencing. 

In recent days, charities such as the Samaritans and Pieta House have been sharing contact details and promoting helplines for any students struggling with their mental health during the exam period. 

Over 120,000 students will sit Junior and Leaving Certificate exams in the coming weeks. Teachers, students and representatives from teachers’ unions all told TheJournal.ie that they feared students were experiencing a more intense level of stress and anxiety compared to previous years. 

In May, a survey conducted by Studyclix – an online site for students and teachers that helps with exams – found that 75% of students were suffering “extreme” stress as a result of the Leaving Certificate.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, John MacGabhann, the General Secretary of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland, said that while it is hard to be definitive, “the level of stress has probably increased” in recent years among students. 

“Any examination is stressful. Therefore the elimination of stress is neither possible or desirable,” he said. However, MacGabhann said that the CAO points race and the “proliferation” of social media in recent years has probably increased stress among students sitting exams. 

“The instant playback, commentary and observations on social media… probably cause distress that wouldn’t have previously been caused”, he said. 

In the coming weeks, social media will become the main forum for students to discuss exams – whether it’s how they performed or whether a certain question came up. As many teachers noted, both the online and off-line worlds become dominated by the minutiae of the Leaving Certificate for the next several weeks.  

This was echoed by Ann Piggott, the Vice-President of the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland. She said that students are today living more stressful lives – and exams often add to that stress.

“I think in general students live more anxiously,” she said. “They’re anxious in ways they wouldn’t have been 20 years ago.”

While acknowledging that not every student experiences severe stress during exam periods or during term time, she called for “far more guidance and counselling in schools.”

In December, the Economic and Social Research Institute (ERSI) published a review of senior cycle education in Ireland. The report found that many students had concerns over stress and their own mental health:

The current system was seen as negative effects in terms of student motivation among those who were not as academically oriented and as leading to higher stress levels among the high achievers.

Another report published in January by the ERSI looked at the impact on changes to the Leaving Certificate grading scheme on students. It noted: “The views of students and staff across the case-study schools suggest that student stress remains a significant challenge for schools.”

Teachers themselves say that the education system needs to re-evaluate how it helps students manage stress. Vice-Principal of Mercy Secondary School Inchicore, Michelle O’Kelly, said students seem to be distracted by phones and social media in the weeks leading up to exams. 

“It’s a hyperness to their stress”, she said. “There was always stress, but there’s an anxiety to it now that’s been fuelled by social media.”

“I do find, especially in the last two years, that [students] talk a lot about being stressed but find it difficult to put plans in place to manage their stress.”

Teresa Bell, Deputy Regional Director for Samaritans in Ireland, said that this time of year often produces a high volume of calls – not just from students, but from parents, guardians and teachers too.  ”The whole family is doing the examination and living the examination,” she said. 

For students, the exam adds a series of pressures – from cramming for an exam to managing the expectations of friends and family. Nadine Toye, a Donegal student sitting the Leaving Certificate this month and who is also the current Communications Officer of the Irish Second-Level Students Union (ISSU), said students were experiencing more stress compared to a decade ago. 

It’s not just the exams, she said. “A lot of people don’t realise the work that goes on behind the scenes in the Leaving Certificate year.”

“You’re constantly hearing it: Leaving Cert, Leaving Cert, Leaving Cert,” she said. 

If you need to talk, support is available:

  • Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.ie
  • Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
  • Pieta House 1800 247 247 or email mary@pieta.ie (suicide, self-harm)
  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)
  • Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

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