Is making the grade worth the impact on our teens' mental health?

Exam with school student having a educational test, thinking hard, writing answer in classroom for

Exam with school student having a educational test, thinking hard, writing answer in classroom for university education admission and world literacy day concept - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

“In today’s jobs' market, a degree is simply not enough.” A bold and slightly worrying statement perhaps but one I heard on a talk from a college lecturer on a recent visit to a university with my eldest son who is currently in year 13.

Like many other parents in St Albans, I have been travelling the length and breadth of the country checking out university campuses to help him make his choices for his UCAS 2022 application.

We are luckier than last year’s year 13 cohort, who did not have the opportunity to visit any of these educational establishments due to the lockdown. This year, the universities have opened up their campuses, but not their buildings, for prospective undergraduates to get a feel for what uni life could be like if they work hard and get the grades.

It is very different to the visits of the early 1990s when I just did uni tours with a bunch of my friends. Uni visits circa 2022 involve 17-year-olds following their parents around campuses with their mums and dads muttering about UCAS points and predicted grades.

The whole experience these days is so overwhelming and it feels like there is so much to think about. City campus or a campus outside the city? Halls with en-suites, self-catered or catered? And we haven’t even thought about student finance or maintenance grants. And of course, there’s the dreaded personal statement and making your “Aspirational, Solid and Safe” choices.

But the thing I feel most overwhelmed by is the pressure, the absolute pressure, that our children in St Albans seem to be under to succeed. Nobody seems to talk about getting Bs and Cs these days, it’s all As and As* and nobody seems to be looking at universities that require less than ABB. And of course, there’s the demands of social media as their peer group Snapchat and Instagram their way around the Russell Group unis, piling on the pressure for some of our young people, who know that no matter how hard they work, are unlikely to make the Russell Group grade.

I start questioning whether this is unique to St Albans or if it’s a nationwide thing. Surely not every mum and dad of a year 13 preparing for uni is expecting their child to get As or distinctions across the board? And if they are, what is this doing to our young people?

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Setting ridiculously high goals that for the vast majority are unrealistic, and it simply isn’t fair. And on top of what has been the toughest of times for our young people with recent reports from mental health charity MIND finding that two-thirds of young people felt their mental health deteriorate during lockdown.

I know for certain that the anxiety levels in my house have been cranked up a notch in the last few weeks, and I feel that the uni visits are actually partly responsible for creating the pressure. I am starting to question whether they are worth it because at the end of the day, most of this is not in the control of our young people anyway.

We are lucky to be in a city that has good mental health support for our children in the shape of two local charities – Youth Talk and It’s OK To Say. Youth Talk is a free, confidential counselling service for 13-25 year olds. Over the last five years, the charity has seen an increase in the number of year 13s seeking out their counselling services.

And with panic attacks and anxiety levels among our teens on the up, It’s OK To Say is planning to host a ‘Find you for Exam Success’ workshop with a panel of professionals in the upcoming months at Oaklands College to support our young people through the transition from school to uni life.

My WhatsApp group of year 13 mums helps to keep me sane and the What I Wish I Knew About University Facebook group provides me with an insight into what the future holds – as well as a bit of a laugh along the way. The group has nearly 18,000 members, all parents or carers with children who have been or are on the cusp of going to uni. 

It is a useful group in many ways with parents sharing nuggets of information about their children’s experiences, both good and bad, but sometimes it is a bit too intense. Mattress protector or mattress topper or both for my DD (darling daughter)? Induction hob friendly saucepans or not for my DS (darling son)?

Is this helicopter-style of parenting too much and is it heaping even more pressure on our kids to succeed? We all know there are other pathways to follow and that uni isn’t right for everyone, and we need to make sure our kids know that they shouldn’t just go to uni because that is what every other teen in St Albans does...

And if you don’t go, it doesn’t mean you have failed.

And at the end of the day, who really is getting the A*. Is it the parents or the teens?