Exam Stress, Disability & SEN

According to research published in the Guardian last week, primary school children sitting Sats are exhibiting increased signs of stress and anxiety. School leaders have apparently reported a marked increase in mental health issues around exam time with problems said to include sleeplessness, panic attacks, sobbing, loss of eyelashes and damage to self-esteem.

Sadly but perhaps unsurprisingly, the report also suggests that the above issues are worst in the case of children with disabilities and/or special educational needs. It cites the example of a pupil with Hyper-mobility Syndrome Disorder [HSD] who already experiences anxiety and chronic fatigue as a matter of course. As his mother reportedly put it, “a lot of his stress is caused by the fact that he doesn’t fit into the ‘norm’ of children whom Sats were designed for” adding that “Sats have just put increased pressure on a boy already suffering”.

There is little or no law relating specifically to ‘exam stress.’ However, there is little doubt that pupils are legally entitled to receive (and schools obliged to provide) appropriate support with exam stress, not least as safeguarding guidance requires those professionals who come into contact with children to ‘promote their welfare’ which is defined as: protecting children from maltreatment; preventing impairment of children’s health or development; ensuring that children grow up in circumstances consistent with the provision of safe and effective care; and taking action to enable all children to have the best outcomes.’

As far as children with SEN and/or disabilities specifically are concerned, schools have a duty to make reasonable adjustments. In the context of exams this could potentially require increased pastoral support as well as more typical concessions such as extra time or a scribe. Where applicable, parents may also consider requesting that a Statement of SEN or EHC Plan includes specific details about how a pupil will be supported during exam season. The provision in question will then of course become mandatory and legally enforceable.

Robin Jacobs

Barrister

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