What Parents Need To Know About Mental Ill Health And Time Off School During Exam Season

Including how to tell if your child is struggling, plus what happens to their grade if they miss an exam.

Every year as schools and sixth form colleges approach exam season, psychotherapist Ian Jenkins begins to receive a rise in calls from parents worried about their children’s mental health.

Teachers are under evermore pressure to get results, so they pass on this pressure to students and their parents,” he tells HuffPost UK. “I hear about students facing ‘meltdowns’, getting increasingly angry, collapsing or retreating into virtual worlds of false safety. Increasingly, young people wrongly believe they have to reach their target grades or they are failures, their lives are over, or their parents will be devastated.”

'Teachers are under evermore pressure to get results, so they pass on this pressure to students and their parents' (stock image).
tommaso79 via Getty Images
'Teachers are under evermore pressure to get results, so they pass on this pressure to students and their parents' (stock image).

Jenkins wants to reassure parents that struggling with mental health issues during GCSEs or A-Levels doesn’t mean their child is doomed to be a failure. Even if your child doesn’t get the grades they were hoping for, he says “there is always a route, a future, an option” and reminds parents traditional academic achievement isn’t the be-all and end-all. Getting the right support is what’s important.

Jade Loynes, 26, from Manchester, had to miss her final six months of school ahead of her GCSEs in 2008, because she was struggling with anxiety and panic attacks.

The school were very supportive and provided me with workbooks to take home and explained key areas that I should focus on. I eventually went on to university where I came out with a first class honours degree in Child Development,” she tells HuffPost UK.

Jade Loynes had to miss her final six months of school ahead of her GCSEs in 2008.
Jade Loynes
Jade Loynes had to miss her final six months of school ahead of her GCSEs in 2008.

Loynes says the time off “didn’t really impact” her grades as she finished with seven GCSEs A-C and one grade D. She is now a mum-of-three and works as a freelance writer in the area of child education and development.

According to Emma Saddleton, a helpline manager at mental health charity YoungMinds, it’s not unusual for young people to be more irritable and stressed during revision time. In fact, a recent survey of more than 8,000 UK students by Ryman Stationery found 61% said they are feeling stressed about their upcoming exams.

However, there is a difference between “usual” exam stress and mental illness.

Saddleton says if you see “a sustained change in your child’s behaviour and mood” it can be a sign they are struggling more seriously, as exams can “exacerbate underlying difficulties a young person might be going through”.

“You know your child best, so trust your instincts,” she advises.

Saddleton believes the best thing parents can do to support their children during this time is to “focus on your child’s wellbeing”.

“Reassure them that you’re there for them regardless of their grades, and help them plan revision so they can take regular breaks, get some fresh air and plan for time to switch off at the end of the day,” she says. “It’s also a good idea to plan a treat for the end of exams, to celebrate the young person getting through this time and reward their hard work.“

If parents remain concerned about their child’s mental health, Saddleton emphasises the importance of speaking to your GP for professional support, as they can recommend treatment options tailored to the individual and possibly refer your child to local mental health services.

A sustained change in your child’s behaviour and mood can be a sign they are struggling more seriously, (stock image).
DGLimages via Getty Images
A sustained change in your child’s behaviour and mood can be a sign they are struggling more seriously, (stock image).

Loynes says through her work she has seen how schools have improved in the way they deal with mental ill health. “There are now professionals within the school network that specifically target key areas of mental health, whereas 10 years ago you would just talk to the head teacher or pastoral team, none of whom were qualified in mental health awareness,” she says, however she still believes more needs to be done to support teens through exams.

Some parents or GPs may feel the student needs time off from school during exam season because of mental ill health, or the child might benefit from additional support during exams, such as extra time, which is referred to as “special considerations”.

Unfortunately, establishing the rules and regulations around who is entitled to special considerations isn’t always easy. In fact, when HuffPost UK initially contacted the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) - which oversees exam boards such as AQA and OCR - to find out the requirements a student must meet to be granted special considerations, we were directed towards a 110-page document - not the easiest form of information for parents who are concerned about their children to digest.

When pushed on the matter, a JCQ spokesperson explained they would recommend a parent or guardian speak directly to the school if their child is struggling with their mental health, as schools and colleges can then make an application to the JCQ on the student/parent’s behalf, presenting their case and their requirements.

“JCQ and its member awarding bodies are committed to providing a fair system that allows students with a disability to access their exams [The Equality Act 2010 includes mental health difficulties in its definition of disability]. These access arrangements include adjustments such as additional time, rest breaks, or the use of a scribe or a computer if this is the candidate’s normal way of working,” the spokesperson said.

“Special consideration may be available to students who have been affected at the time of, or very near to, their examination. For example, if the student is taken ill or has suffered a recent bereavement of a close family member additional marks may be available.”

The maximum amount of additional marks that can be awarded through special consideration if a child sits the exam is 5%. However, if a student is unable to attend an exam due to mental ill health, there are other options. For English and mathematics GCSEs only, there is an opportunity to re-sit in November. For all other GCSEs and A-Levels, your child will have to speak to the school, enrol and re-sit the following year.

Alternatively, the school can apply for your child to be awarded an “enhanced grade” if they missed the exam. This will be a grade based on any units completed by the student, such as coursework for certain subjects. “Current minimum requirements for enhanced grading in cases of acceptable absence require candidates to have sat at least 25% [of units]. In rare and extenuating circumstances, awarding organisations have the discretion to make an award on a lower percentage,” the JCQ spokesperson said.

Stock image.
KatarzynaBialasiewicz via Getty Images
Stock image.

Not knowing how their modified grades will affect their college or university applications can add another layer of stress for students, says Jenkins. So, Courteney Sheppard, customer experience manager at the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), recommends if a student experiences any extenuating circumstances that may affect their exam results, including mental ill health, they should contact their chosen university or college to clear up any uncertainty.

“Processes for dealing with extenuating circumstances may vary from one university to another, and it can depend on when they receive the information,” she tells HuffPost UK. “Some may take the situation into account when they are making an offer, some may wait until the results are received and take the circumstances into account at confirmation stage. Others may use the information to provide additional support to a student when they arrive. Universities or colleges may request additional information or supporting evidence in order to consider the circumstances in context.”

The UCAS application form also includes an optional question for students to identify whether they have a disability, health condition, and/or mental health condition. There is also the option for students to add more information about the support they require.

“All personal information is protected under the Data Protection Act 1998 and UCAS only shares information with a higher education provider if the student has chosen to declare their condition and this is passed to staff who are directly involved in arranging support, eg. the mental health adviser, personal tutor, or exams adviser,” Sheppard explains. “Details about a disability, illness or mental health condition are also protected under the Equality Act and this information is not used in the decision-making process.”

She adds if a student decides not to declare a mental health condition they are fully within their rights to make this decision.

For more information about helping a child through exam season with their mental health, speak to your GP, the student’s teacher or headteacher, or call YoungMinds on 0808 802 5544.

Useful websites and helplines:

  • Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
  • Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
  • The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: help@themix.org.uk