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The mental health impact of cancelled exams and school closures on young people

A new survey by the Social Mobility Foundation of 863 young people aged between 16-18 reveals that:

  • 73% of young people areanxious about exam cancellations
  • 64% say school closures have negatively impacted their mental health
  • 73% are worried about being able to study enough in lockdown

A survey conducted by the Social Mobility Foundation between 7th–11th January 2021 has today revealed the wide-ranging impact of school closures and exam cancellations on disadvantaged young people.

The adverse impact on mental health is being driven by a lack of clarity in the alterative arrangement for summer assessments. 76% of participants are still not confident that they know what the Department for Education’s new plan is, with one in two students (52%) worried that teacher assessed grading will not deliver the results they deserve. As a result, many students would like to see exams remain in place.

One SMF student said:

“This is having a big impact on my mental health as my exams could have been my chance to prove myself to all those teachers whom say that I’m not good enough…”

There is also further evidence that interventions to address inequality are not sufficient:

  • 40% of students who responded to the survey do not have access to reliable broadband
  • Over a third (38%) of participants have not been contacted by their school or college about their tech needs.
  • 92% of Social Mobility Foundation students who responded have not been contacted about the National Tutoring Programme, which has already enrolled 90,000 students.


Sarah Atkinson, Chief Executive of the Social Mobility Foundation, said:

This data lays out in stark terms the impact of the Government’s indecision and lack of clarity on young people. Students whose exams have been cancelled need to know what the plan is and what’s expected of them; they need assurance that grades will be a fair reflection of their achievement, and clear information on how they can appeal.  

We are asking the Department for Education to make sure the most disadvantaged pupils, who already fared worse than their better-off peers before the pandemic, are the top priority. Many of our students still do not have laptops nor reliable broadband and have not been contacted about the National Tutoring Programme – we need to see practical action to close the gap.

We will be responding to the consultation on 2021 exam replacement, among other things urging the DfE and Ofqual to pay extra attention to supporting schools in social mobility cold spots and young people on free school meals.”

Quotes from SMF students:

The free response sections make it clear that many of our young people are angry and many are experiencing a negative impact on their mental health. There is an interesting pattern of young people wanting exams with support rather than teacher assessment:

  • “My mental health has been drastically affected my both lockdowns, and not knowing what is happening with exams is making it worse.”
  • “My mental health is at an all time low.”
  • “The news of exam cancellations devastated me; I no longer feel confident about improving my grades and worry about going to university on time if I receive poor grades and need to re-sit a year as a result.”
  • “This is having a big impact on my mental health as my exams could have been my chance to prove myself to all those teachers whom say that I’m not good enough…”
  • “I want to have some form of exam this summer especially since I’ve worked really hard over the last few weeks…not being in school/ having a timetable made me feel really depressed/ stressed over lockdown. As a result I got really low on my mocks (which was two weeks into September after 6 months of no school). My predictions suffered…”
  • “Personally I find it absolutely ridiculous for exams to be cancelled…Students spend their whole school careers preparing for exams and some rely on a final exam, and for their opportunity to be ripped away only to be given “predicted grades” when we are in school anyway is absurd and unfair.”
  • “It’s [CAGs are] not going to work and I genuinely fear that I may not be accepted into my universities because of all of this. I fear I may not get the grades I need.”

Notes to editors

Sarah Atkinson and student participants are available for interviews and further comment. Please contact:

Antony Haddley, Communications Manager, SMF

E: T: 07841 577627


About the Social Mobility Foundation

The Social Mobility Foundation (SMF) is a charity that aims to make practical improvements in social mobility for young people from low-income backgrounds both through programme work and through its advocacy and campaigning arm, the Department for Opportunities (DO).

It runs free of charge programmes of mentoring, internships, university application support (including trips to universities and help with personal statements, aptitude tests and interviews) and career and skills workshops to support young people through their school and university years.

Currently taking on a new cohort of over 2,000 young people every year, the SMF has offices in Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow, Liverpool, London, Manchester and Newcastle and runs programmes for young people from the Isle of Wight to the Western Isles of Scotland across 11 career sectors (Accountancy, Architecture, Banking & Finance, Biology & Chemistry, Business, Engineering & Physics, Law, Media & Communications, Medicine, Politics, and Digital).

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