More anxiety around 'higher education and the unknown' impacting young people ahead of exam results day

A children’s charity has said it is vital young people feel listened to and supported as pupils will be “increasingly anxious” as they prepare to open exam results.

This year has seen a return to formal Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) assessments – exams and coursework – for the first time since 2019.

Around 128,000 learners in 500 schools, colleges and training providers sat national qualifications this year after two million exam papers were issued.

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Pupils across Scotland will find out their exam results on Tuesday. Picture: John Devlin

Up to 138,000 certificates will be arriving on doorsteps on Tuesday morning, including a wide range of vocational courses.

However, despite all the assessment uncertainty created by Covid over the past two years, the SQA exam results in 2022 bring a different kind of anxiety.

A candidate who sat teacher-marked assessments in third year may now be waiting on the outcome of Highers they sat in an exam hall with no prior experience in this formal setting.

Aside from the assistance of prelims, there were not many ‘dress rehearsal’ exam stages for young people emerging from a pandemic reconfiguration of past exam settings.

Adeniyi Alade, service head of Childline, said the “fear of the unknown” would be particularly impacting young people in 2022 compared to previous years.

In the run-up to exams and results day, Mr Alade said there was always a spike in numbers of young people phoning the helpline.

But he said out of those contacting Childline this year, not knowing what to expect from formal exams and getting into higher education is an “increasing cause” of anxiety.

Mr Alade said: "Unlike previous years, more young people are focused on wanting to get into higher education and the next level of education.

“In the past, there was a sense that there were a lot of options available to you, but now there’s a lot of focus on this.

"There are a lot of anxieties around failure.”

The SQA said they have adopted a “more generous” approach to grading this year and outcomes are likely to be somewhere between those in 2021 and those in 2019.

Yet, for many young people, this does not stop the anxiety.

Talking ahead of exam results, a 17 year-old girl from Scotland told Childline she is so anxious she feels sick constantly.

The student said she never struggled with exams before, but with the step up to Highers in a formal setting and after going through lockdowns, she started to struggle.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), which runs Childline, has advised parents and carers to be patient and supportive of young people throughout this process.

Paul Johnson, NSPCC Childline team manager for Scotland, said: “Some young people have also told us they felt underprepared for exams after studying from home for long periods of time in the last few years.

“Now, as they find out their results from the exams, it is vital that they feel supported and listened to.

“Young people often tell us they are worried they will get lower grades than they need to get into their preferred course or university, and they feel anxious and unsettled because it’s out of their control.

“Often they have high expectations for themselves, or their family can put them under pressure to perform well.”

Speaking ahead of results day, education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville said: “While we saw a return to exams this year, it wasn’t a return to normality. Continued disruption as a result of Covid-19 meant there had to be a different approach to exams.

"That approach, which was informed by views from across the education system as well as learners themselves, had one clear aim – to deliver a fair set of results for our young people, while maintaining the integrity of qualifications."

The SQA this year reduced the volume of assessments, and removed or reduced elements of an exam to help ease the workload for learners and teachers.

After discovering grades, pupils and teachers will be able to use a free appeals service, including direct appeals from learners to SQA.

The NSPCC said speaking to a teacher could help assist a young person to decide on which is the best option to take.

Mr Johnson said: “If any young person is feeling apprehensive and worried about their results, I’d urge them to talk to someone about it.

“It can be very upsetting for a young person not to get the grades they had hoped for or expected, and it can affect their confidence. But it’s important for them to know that many others are going through the same thing and there are a range of options to explore."

Higher education minister Jamie Hepburn has urged tens of thousands of school leavers to consider colleges as a first-choice destination.

He said: “Scotland’s colleges offer incredible opportunities for young people looking to acquire the new skills needed for today’s workforce. Other students might be looking to improve their results and then move on to a higher level of study in college or onto university.

"Colleges across the country also offer outstanding training for increasing numbers of apprentices.

“With exam results out today, Scotland’s colleges provide world-class learning for everyone and I hope every school leaver considers them as a first-choice destination.”

Young people under the age of 19 can get free, confidential support and advice from Childline at www.childline.org.uk or by calling 0800 1111 for free.

They might also find it helpful to talk to other young people who are going through similar experiences on the Childline message boards.

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