As thousands of young Australians undertake their final school exams across the country, new research from NAB has revealed the growing pressure of schoolwork, tests and grades is the biggest driver of anxiety and unease among students.
The 2019 NAB Independent Schools Survey found it was the primary cause of anxiety for girls (66%) and boys (58%), and was the main reason why 1 in 3 identified as “highly anxious”.
NAB Economics, in collaboration with the bank’s specialised NAB Education business segment, engaged with more than 400 students in Years 8 to 12 from independent schools across Australia, to gain insight into what they really think about their lives at school and their future.
Students identified mental health, future job prospects (particularly boys), the pressure of getting into a chosen course, looks and appearance (particularly girls), not being successful and money (particularly boys), and friendships (particularly girls) as the other key concerns for their wellbeing.
Rhiannon McGee, Head of Positive Education at Geelong Grammar School, said she was not surprised by the NAB survey’s findings on student wellbeing.
“Most educators would agree that there has been a rise in anxiety and depression among students,” Ms McGee said.
“There is a strong emphasis on academic success and that comes not only from within schools but also from the desire of parents and the students themselves.”
Dean Pearson, NAB Head of Behavioural & Industry Economics, said while schools are often at the front line dealing with many of these issues, they can’t solve them alone.
“Anxiety is a societal issue and most schools recognise its importance, which is why they have wellbeing programs in place.”
While awareness of school wellbeing programs was found to be high, students surveyed said they were not convinced these programs justify the time away from study.
School wellbeing initiatives scored just 3.9 points out of 10 (where 10 is completely helping students to improve their wellbeing).
“Schools do the best they can to support students, particularly during exam times and student engagement in their wellbeing is growing,” Ms McGee said.
Geelong Grammar has one of the most well regarded Positive Education and student wellbeing programs in Australia, which includes animal therapy during stressful times such as exams.
“Many of our students are borders and miss their pets, so we have dogs out the front of exam rooms,” Ms McGee said.
“Encouragingly, 80 per cent of our students who seek psychological support at school, self-refer.”
Beth Blackwood, the chief executive of the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia (AHISA), said the NAB survey provided invaluable feedback on what matters most to young adolescents and how they feel schools are faring in meeting their needs.
“What is evident from this survey is the consideration, intellect, innovative thinking and critical thought given by young people to the issues raised,” Ms Blackwood said.
“AHISA commends the survey as stimulation for conversations in schools, for identifying what might be relevant to their particular context and impetus for creating collaborative approaches in identifying strategies to strengthen holistic educational outcomes for their students.”
The survey also found students were unconvinced the current school curriculum is adequately preparing them for life beyond school, particularly in areas such as financial literacy, technology and ‘real world’ experiences.
“Most students know what field they want to work in when they finish school, but they believe their school is only ‘moderately’ helping them to prepare for their ideal career pathway,” Mr Pearson said.
“In terms of building skills for the future, students want more personalised learning, recognition of different learning styles, more feedback post-assessment, leadership opportunities and a focus on passions rather than careers.”
Mr Pearson said while students where vocal in their concerns, they were also highly engaged around opportunities to improve academically and emotionally.