Many girls ‘lose sleep with worry’ ahead of Leaving Cert

Girls link success in exams more closely to their personal identity, ESRI study finds

Girls experience much higher stress levels than boys in the Leaving Cert, an ESRI  study  suggests. File photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

Girls experience much higher stress levels than boys in the Leaving Cert, an ESRI study suggests. File photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times


Girls experience much higher stress levels than boys in the Leaving Cert, in part due to a greater tendency to make “social comparisons”, a new study by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) suggests.

The study examines what lies behind previously published data showing just under 40 per cent of girls reported “losing sleep with worry” and over 50 per cent felt “constantly under strain or pressure” in the run-up to the Leaving Cert.

In both cases, the response rate was about 15 per cent ahead of boys.

Female students were also more likely to report losing confidence in themselves and having problems concentrating.

ESRI researchers Joanne Banks and Emer Smyth say the findings indicate that guidance counselling is a key factor in helping to reduce stress levels.

The authors also call for fresh debate on the form of assessment used at the end of the senior cycle so that the emphasis is taken off an “all or nothing” exam.

The study, ‘Your Whole Life Depends on it: Academic Stress and High-stakes Testing in Ireland’, published in the Journal of Youth Studies, notes that “stress may be passed from one student to another”, becoming “contagious among particular groups of (often high-performing) girls”.

Within the school context, girls “seem more susceptible to social comparisons”, linking success in exams more closely to their personal identity.

‘Source of pressure’

It says “teachers were frequently seen as a source of pressure as they constantly emphasised the importance of the exams” but “possibly the main source of pressure was the young person’s own desire to do well”.

Noting how the current mode of assessment affects stress levels, the authors say: “Young people taking the Leaving Certificate Applied programme, which combines exams with assessment of coursework, had much lower stress levels than those faced with the high-stakes established Leaving Certificate exam.”

They added: “Those who reported being dissatisfied with their subject choices and who regretted taking some subjects reported higher stress levels, highlighting the importance of students receiving the guidance necessary to make well-informed choices at senior cycle level.”

The study - based on a survey of 900 students who completed their secondary education in 2007/2008 - showed that many students reported cutting back on social activities, including sport, in sixth year.

Those who continued to take part in regular school-based sports had lower stress levels than their peers.

Narrowing experience

The researchers say their results, “coupled with other findings that show how the dominance of the exam narrows student experiences of teaching and learning”, point to the need for further debate on the nature of assessment at senior cycle.

“In the interim, the findings show that schools can play a role in reducing stress by promoting positive interactions between teachers and students, reducing bullying, encouraging sports participation and facilitating subject choice.”

Meanwhile, the Irish Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy has advised students feeling the pressure ahead of next week’s exams to reach out to their families, friends and professionals for help.

The group estimates about a third of students sitting the exams, or nearly 17,000 young people, suffer from stress during the Leaving Cert, but very few will seek help.

It advises students to set realistic, attainable goals; have a well-balanced diet; partake in exercise and try to get eight hours’ sleep every night, with an hour of relaxation each evening.