Media briefing: HMC/ASCL/Sunday Times Conference “Good Mental Health in Schools – What Works?” – April 28th, British Library


HMC believes the overwhelming majority of pupils enjoy a happy and fulfilling experience during their time at school. However, we recognise the increase in anxiety and mental health problems being exhibited by today’s young people in all schools, and our leadership has committed itself to examining the causes and effects of pressure on pupils. Pastoral care in HMC schools is amongst the best in the world has its reach and effectiveness has increased in the past five years (as covered by The Sunday Times), meaning its pupils are in a better position to deal with pressures in the teenage years. This is evidenced by the consistently positive feedback and excellent results in our schools. HMC aims to use the information gained to further improve this provision and share best practice with colleagues in the state sector and inform Government decision making.

To improve the way all schools support young people, HMC schools are creating many new partnerships, including with ASCL, the Mental Health Foundation, BrainCanDo, Oxford University, Place2Be, The Anna Freud Centre and the Mindfulness in Schools Project, as well as The Sunday Times Young Minds campaign and various external providers and experts.

The HMC Spring Conference (above) is designed to examine the nature of the pressures on teenagers in all schools and is being held in association with ASCL and The Sunday Times Young Minds campaign. HMC and The Sunday Times have agreed to work together on a news story and a double page spread (in the printed edition), plus opinion pieces from the Chairman of HMC and possibly heads of leading independent schools (either printed edition or online) in order to raise awareness and contribute to public debate.

The Managing Editor Charles Hymas has agreed to say a few words of introduction at the start of the conference, alongside leaders from HMC and ASCL.

News story summary

As current educational reforms put even more emphasis on end-of-course public examinations, HMC has undertaken an exploratory survey of heads of some of the UK’s leading independent schools to help find the best solutions to exam pressure. The “Dealing with Examination Pressure” survey shows:

Leading independent schools are further increasing their support to anxious pupils and parents as fears for the future fuel higher levels of exam stress

HMC Chairman Chris King said: “Pupils in all schools feel anxiety sometimes, especially around exam season, although the great majority are happy and coping well. However, educational and societal changes mean they and their parents are experiencing new pressures. HMC schools have a close relationship with parents but more and more is being asked of us and an even closer alliance between schools, parents and pupils is needed.”

“In common with their favourite sportsmen and women, pupils need to be match fit for exams. They need personal resilience, great coaching and encouragement from their fans at home.”

Survey findings

  • Visible signs of stress associated with public examinations have increased in the past five years. This is in line with the national picture; see The impact of accountability measures on children and young people (July 2015).
  • None of the school Heads surveyed saw this as being a large problem, with more or less equal numbers seeing it as a small or medium sized problem being addressed by increases in pastoral care and parental support
  • The majority of co-educational schools said girls were showing more obvious signs of pressure than boys (though this doesn’t necessarily mean they are feeling it more)
  • Growing anxiety amongst a minority of parents, plus desire to please their families is causing pupils to feel increased pressure to succeed. The majority of parents are a positive influence
  • 100% are using training in exam technique and individual counselling from pastoral and medical staff in school to help combat the effects of exam pressure. 77% are offering this from external practitioners
  • 97% of schools surveyed are including parents in their advice sessions on how to deal positively with public exams. In some schools this follows increased requests from parents; in other cases it is done proactively
  • 81% of respondents offer exam support as part of wider wellbeing and resilience programmes.
  • New innovations in HMC schools include offering parenting classes with external providers and offering parents more one to one advice sessions with the head or other staff
  • 82% use mentors or buddies
  • 80% use various forms of curriculum innovation
  • 89% of respondents are planning further innovations in 2016/17


When asked what actions might be to be beneficial to reducing pressure on today’s pupils, they suggested:

  • fewer competing pressures on young people by (self) limiting access to social media and the internet – including keeping devices out of bedrooms at night, especially during exams
  • less change in examinations provision and greater consistency and continuity in marking and syllabuses;
  • less public focus on examination grades and fewer denigrating comments on current examination standards;
  • a change in school performance tables to place a value on non-examined aspects of education;
  • the status of vocational training to be seen as equal to an academic university education;
  • parents thinking carefully about their sense of perspective, taking advice and working with the school to ensure they have realistic expectations for their children;
  • parents encouraging pupils whilst helping them maintain a healthy work and play balance
  • Schools continuing to “bang the drum” for improving mental health and help young people be resilient and learn to cope with failure.


The most significant drivers of exam pressure were:

  • Pupils absorbing concerns from home that their school years should create the platform for future success in life. (100%) NB heads comment:
    • parents seem generally more worried about their children and their future and are asking schools for help for their particular child
    • “pressure from home” is a desire by pupils to please anxious parents concerned about university places and future careers
  • Social media, (86%) causing distraction, lack of sleep and a competitive culture. The fear this creates in young people generally of not appearing ‘perfect’
  • Top universities asking for increasingly high grades (93%) with some universities systematically accepting lower than the original offer. Increasing competition for courses such as medicine resulting in a request near perfect grades is a further factor
  • Performance tables causing unrealistic expectations and fuelling parental expectation. Heads generally recognise such tables have a place but would like reform to the metrics used in their design
  • Poor revision planning by pupils (86%) despite increased training


Further quotes

Chris King, Chair of HMC and Headmaster of Leicester Grammar School said:

“The wellbeing of all pupils is our primary concern and HMC schools provide world class holistic education. Exam results are clearly important as a springboard to the future but in order to do well, pupils need to be calm and able to concentrate.

“Our schools have long called for and practiced a more balanced approach which values creativity, character and sport as well as academic success; for example we have a great track record in keeping both boys and girls engaged in sport even through the GCSE and A Level years.

“Our independence means we are able to be responsive and innovative, placing us well to help identify some of the solutions to the pressures on today’s teenagers.

“HMC’s first conference on good mental health will help share some of the best practice happening in our schools with our state school colleagues and we look forward to learning from them. We also welcome the partnership with The Sunday Times Young Minds campaign which rightly calls for training to help teachers spot early warning signs of mental health problems.”

Malcom Trobe, Acting General Secretary of ASCL said:

“Helping all young people navigate their school years happily and positively has never been more important. The pressures of social media, and concerns that life can be one long competition, are making some youngsters vulnerable and prone to self-doubt.

“ASCL is very pleased to partner with HMC on its ‘Good Mental Health in Schools – What Works? ’ conference because both of our organisations want our schools to be as effective as possible in providing crucial support for young people.  However, teachers are not mental health professionals and schools should not be seen as an alternative to national services such as the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAHMS) which are being cut back very hard.

“It is particularly important to understand how best to help young people cope with exam pressures. While most will perform to their potential, all schools contain students who put themselves under unrealistic pressures and need extra support.”

Other quotes can be obtained on request.

Further feature material available

  • Blog by Sam Price, Headmistress, Benenden (advice for parents)
  • Blog by Kevin Fear, Headmaster, Nottingham High School (helping children cope)

For the report and any case studies please contact Sue Bishop on [email protected] or 07787 294 808.

Appendix 1 – HMC Exam Pressure Survey: some headline data

­­­­­1. Trends in exam-related pressure amongst pupils - percentages

Percentage of responses of each type
Yes (%) No (%)  
a) Has visible pupil stress related to exams increased in your school over the past five years?  




Small (%) Medium (%) Large (%)
b) Is such pupil stress in your school a small, medium or large scale problem?  






Yes (%) No (%) N/A (%)
c) (i) [Co-education schools only] Are boys and girls equally affected by this form of stress?  







Boys (%) Girls (%) N/A (%)
(ii) If No, is it more prevalent in boys or girls?








Year 11 (%) Year 12 (%) Year 13 (%)
e) Does exam-related stress seem most prevalent  among pupils in Year 11, Year 12 or Year 13  






2. Causes and extent of exam pressure in pupils

In your experience, and that of your staff, to what extent is exam-related stress caused by each of the following?     

1: a great deal  2: a certain amount  3: hardly at all  4: not at all

External influences

Percentage of responses of each type
1 (%) 2 (%) 3 (%) 4 (%)
a) Pressure from home to get high grades 56 44 0 0
b) Universities asking for increasingly higher grades  








c) Withdrawal of January modules 8 31 53 8


Pupil-related factors

a) Concentration difficulties/short attention span  








b) Pressures from/support for friends in peer group  








c) Distraction of social media 39 46 13 3
d) Difficult relationships with teaching staff 3 8 44 46
e) Pressure from coursework deadlines 21 54 21 5
f) Poor planning/leaving revision too late 23 64 13 0
g) Particular special needs 3 32 61 5


The impact of additional support

a) The parallel role of a private tutor 3 32 45 21
b) Pupils being given extra lessons 3 39 44 15
c) Pupil concerns about getting laptops in exams  








d) Pupil concerns about  ‘extra time’ in exams 0 18 44 39


3. The effects on pupils of exam-related pressures

To what extent has your school experienced any of the following effects on pupils?

a) Pupils not attending lessons 0 28 49 23
b) Pupils falling behind with work schedules 8 67 26 0
c) Pupils demonstrating erratic behaviour 0 44 44 13
d) Pupils complaining to teachers or house parents  








e) Parents complaining of stress to the school 8 54 39 0
f) Parents asking for help/support for their child  








g) Pupils dropping out of exams 0 18 67 15


4. School support activities

Please indicate if your school uses any of the following to deal with exam pressure

Percentage of responses of each type
Yes (%) No (%)
a) Individual counselling (pastoral care/medical staff in school) 100 O
b) Individual counselling (pastoral care/medical staff external to school)  




c) Group counselling (pastoral care/medical staff in school) 60 41
d) Group counselling (pastoral care/medical staff external to school)  




e) Advice sessions for teachers or trained experts 77 23
f) Conferences 57 43
g) Training days for staff 71 29
h) Mindfulness sessions 74 26
j) Yoga sessions 42 58
k) Sport (where not part of the normal curriculum) 67 33
l) Parental involvement 97 3
m) Mentors or buddies 82 18
n) Exam techniques/training 100 0
o) PSHE levels 56 44
p) Other innovation in the curriculum 64 36


5. The broader context

Percentage of responses of each type Yes (%) No (%)
a) Is what you do to combat exam stress part of a wider programme of building ‘resilience’/’character’ in your school?  




b) Do you have plans to introduce specific innovations in this area of work in 2015/16?  




Appendix 2 - Contextual Perspectives

Amongst a large amount of information published about mental health and wellbeing of children and young people, the following five reports help to set the context for the HMC research.

(i)         The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health’s Statement

In December 2010, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health published a statement calling for action from the government to recognise children’s mental health services as a priority. This statement was developed by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Royal College of Psychiatrists, Royal College of Nursing, the Division of Clinical Psychology (British Psychological Society) and Royal College of General Practitioners in recognition of the common professional concerns from all health professionals who provide services for children.

They used Data from the Office of National Statistics to note that 1 in 10 under 16 year olds had a diagnosable mental health disorder and that these disorders were on the increase. The Royal College called for action from the government to recognise children’s mental health services as a priority and proposed five key areas action:

  1. Improving the skills of the mental health workforce.
  2. Improving the quality of interventions so that every child has timely access to evidence based treatments.
  3. High quality commissioning and service planning.
  4. Commitment to increasing capacity for mental health services for children and young people.
  5. Improving the transition and collaboration between child and adult mental health services.

(ii)     Health Select Committee inquiry: Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services

Written evidence submitted by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health March 2014

This report noted that:

Among the 5 to 10 year olds, 10% of boys and 5% of girls had a mental disorder while among the 11 to 16 year olds the prevalence was 13% for boys and 10% for girls.

Early and appropriate intervention minimises the mental health challenges for children and young people and the potential lifelong impact.

There has been an increase in number and complexity of children presenting with emotional and or behavioural problems in paediatrics.

Evidence from SEN consultations performed by the DfE suggests that a similar pattern is evident in schools, who feel they are holding increasingly complex cases themselves.

Counselling services in school need to be fixed with more consistency, more private sessions and better availability.

(iii)   Data and Standards Task and Finish Group Report - Children and Young People’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Taskforce (Feb 2015)

This report summarised proposals from the Data and Standards Task and Finish Group of the Children and Young People’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Taskforce. Among its key proposals were the suggestion that:

The Department of Health should commission a regular prevalence survey of child and adolescent mental health every 5 years, giving particular consideration to including those aged under 5 and over 15.

(iv)    NUT - Exam Factories? M Hutchings & N Kazmi

The impact of accountability measures on children and young people (July 2015).

The study was commissioned by the NUT and conducted independently by Emeritus Professor Merryn Hutchings & Dr Naveed Kazmi of London Metropolitan University.
Professor Hutchings & Dr Kazmi suggest that school accountability measures have a range of negative impacts on pupils. These measures included inspections and data published in the school performance tables (attainment, pupil progress, attainment gaps between groups of pupils etc.)

Professor Hutchings & Dr Kazmi concluded that:

  • Children and young people are suffering from increasingly high levels of school-related anxiety and stress, dissatisfaction and mental health problems.
  • There is an increase in stress, anxiety and mental health problems linked to school work or exams.

(v)     HSCIC Improving access to psychological therapies data

This report indicated that in 2013/14 there were 51,000 referrals of 5-19 year olds to psychological therapies (34,000 referrals for females aged 15-19 and 16,000 referrals for males).

The equivalent figure for 20-24 year olds was 119,000 with those aged under 25 accounting for 18 per cent of all referrals.

The same report indicated that new referrals to Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) for under 18s show an upward trend; the number per quarter for each of the first three quarters being greater in 2014/15 than in the equivalent quarter of 2013/14.

Appendix 3 – Survey Methodology

The report was commissioned by HMC and collated and analysed by Dr Stephen Coyne, retired HMC Head and trainer with leading teacher training provider Dragonfly.

It summarises evidence from the HMC member schools on the subject of dealing with stress and anxiety in young people, particularly that associated with external examinations.

53 responses were gathered from leading independent schools, it is not presented as a full survey of the membership. It is intended as a starting point on which to build understanding and for future exploration and action.

Appendix 4 - HMC and HMC Schools

HMC (the Headmasters' & Headmistresses' Conference) is a professional association of heads of the world's leading independent schools. It has 279 members in the British Isles, a further 59 international members and 12 associates, and the number is rising. Over 215,000 pupils are taught in HMC schools in the UK and Ireland, 92% of whom go on to higher education. It is the oldest and most influential association of its kind in the English speaking world. HMC exists to serve and support its members, to represent their views and to exemplify excellence in education. Its members meet at an Annual Conference to encourage and share innovation; the Conference has met annually since 1869


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The findings of HMC's Exam Pressure Survey were first reported in The Sunday Times on 17.04.16 alongside a blog 'Avoiding the Rabbit Hole' from Chris King, Chair of HMC and Headmaster of Leicester Grammar School.