Depression link to underachievement in school exams

Fiona Simpson
Thursday, October 8, 2020

Teenagers diagnosed with depression while at school significantly underachieve at GCSE, according to a new study.

Researchers have suggested delaying exams for children with depression. Picture: Adobe Stock
Researchers have suggested delaying exams for children with depression. Picture: Adobe Stock

Researchers from King’s College London suggest allowing young people with depression to delay or stagger their exams to improve performance.

The study, carried out by King's PhD student Alice Wickersham, tracks the attainment of almost 1,500 students who had been diagnosed with depression before turning 18 over a seven-year period.

The average age for diagnosis was 15 years old, it finds.

The research shows that children diagnosed with depression between the ages of 15 and 18 were likely to have performed well in primary school before suffering a substantial decline in attainment in Year 11.

Some 83 per cent of the group met the expected attainment threshold of level 2 or above in Year 2 and 77 per cent met the expected attainment threshold of level 4 or above in Year 6. This was similar to local levels, researchers say.

However, just 45 per cent of pupils with depression met the expected threshold of five A*–C GCSE or equivalent grades in Year 11 compared with 53 per cent of the overall population.

Wickersham, from the National Institute for Health Research at the Maudsley Biomedical Research Centre, said: “What we’ve observed is that a group of children and adolescents who developed depression at secondary school had performed quite well when they were in primary school.

“It is only when they sat their GCSEs that they tended to show a drop in their school performance, which also happened to be around the time that many of them were diagnosed. This pattern appears to be quite consistent across different genders, ethnicities, and socioeconomic groups.”

She advised schools and local authorities to pay “close attention” to teenagers showing early signs of depression.

“For example, by offering them extra educational support in the lead up to their GCSEs, and working with them to develop a plan for completing their compulsory education,” she adds.

The study comes just a month after schools reopened following six months’ of closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic and amid a row over delaying next years’ exams.

Campaigners have called for ring-fenced funding for schools to support children’s mental health.

Tom Madders, campaigns director at YoungMinds, said: "We know many children and young people have struggled with their mental health as a result of the pandemic, and ensuring that effective support is available in the coming months is crucial.

"If the government wants children to catch up academically after months away from school, it should provide ring-fenced funding for schools to support student mental health."

Meanwhile, children’s commissioner for England Anne Longfield has urged the government to provide access to mental health counsellors in schools for all pupils.

A Department for Education spokesman said: "Testing has always been an important part of education, but it should never be at the expense of a young person's wellbeing.

"The government has invested significantly in mental health charities and in support for teachers and young people, including a new £8m training programme run by experts to tackle the impact of coronavirus on pupils, parents and staff.

"We trust schools to make sure that pupils get the help and support they need, when they need it, working with parents to do this."

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