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Children aged six 'getting exam stress'

test paper Image copyright Thinkstock Image caption Teachers say very young children are becoming anxious about exams and tests

The mental health of children as young as six is being blighted by exam stress, education staff have told the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

Of 420 ATL members who responded to a poll, almost half said pupils in their school had self-harmed - and 89% said testing was the main source of stress.

Some staff said they were aware of pupils attempting suicide - and 18 of these were in primary schools.

The government says children's mental health is a priority.

'Excessive' pressure

Teaching staff complained the pressure placed on children of 10 and 11 by end of primary school tests was "excessive".

Others blamed the government for raising the stakes on testing and exams, affecting some of the youngest children in their schools.

"Mental health issues are probably our biggest barrier to academic progress," said the head of a Norfolk primary school, ahead of the second day of debate at the ATL's annual conference in Liverpool.

"As head of school I am spending more and more of my time supporting children with mental health issues," added the head, who added that the member of staff responsible for pastoral care was "now snowed under".

A member of staff at a secondary academy in London reported "a huge increase in physical symptoms of stress and incidents of self harm".

While "suicidal thoughts have escalated beyond control".

The teachers who took part in the survey also pinpointed fragmented home-lives, family break-up and social media as major factors contributing to pupils' mental distress.

Almost three quarters (73%) felt young people were under more pressure now than two years ago - while 82% felt students were more pressured now than 10 years ago.

A fifth (21%) of those surveyed said their school had no access to a counsellor for pupils, but many others said their schools' counsellors were overstretched with education staff having to shoulder the responsibility despite not being qualified to do so.

"Teachers are not social workers, psychologists or therapists but are increasingly expected to fulfil these roles," said a primary teacher from Somerset.

ATL general secretary Mary Bousted described the findings as "horrifying".

"The government bears responsibility for much of this stress which appears to stem from a test-focused, over-crowded curriculum," said Ms Bousted.

The overwhelming majority (93%) of the staff who took part were in England, with smaller numbers in other parts of the UK.

'A better service'

A Department for Education spokeswoman urged all schools to ensure pupils were supported at times of pressure.

"Tests are a key part of ensuring young people master the skills they need to reach their potential and succeed in life.

"But we have taken real steps to ensure they are not on a constant treadmill of revision and testing, including scrapping January modules, decoupling AS-levels and removing re-sits from league tables."

The spokesman said the government was spending £1.4bn on improving children's mental health services in England, with £150m earmarked for treating eating disorders and self harm and £1.5m to be invested in peer support schemes.

The aim was to ensure a joined-up service which was "readily available when it's needed", she added.

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