Children and young people in this country are experiencing incredibly high levels of stress, anxiety and unhappiness at increasingly younger ages. We don’t yet know what the longer-term impact might be of growing up under this kind of pressure but already the immediate findings are intensely worrying
Should we accept that a rigorous and high-quality school system will place such pressures on pupils and schools, or is a different approach needed?
There’s complex intertwined factors – poverty, social media, self-image, problems at home, bullying – but school itself and academic pressure are ones that comes up again and again. Studies, surveys, reports all keep telling us that children are feeling stressed by the expectations in schools. A study commissioned by Barnardo’s flagged school as the main cause of children’s unhappiness and teachers are reporting signs of stress in younger and younger children.
At the end of many of these articles is a call to fund counselling and mental health support for children. However, the factors causing children so much unhappiness are not inevitable and it is vital that the root causes are addressed.
Being happy helps learning
A cross party select committee into the role of school in children’s mental health and wellbeing criticised the apparent trade-off between achievement and well-being as a false dichotomy. Wellbeing increased children’s ability to learn. The Association of Directors of Public Health stating that: “Children with higher levels of emotional, behavioural, social and school wellbeing have higher levels of academic achievement on average”
The report also cited the evidence provided which suggested that the intense focus on results and academic attainment meant that subjects such as music and time for physical activity, shown to help develop life-long skills and to improve well-being were being crowded out.
The committee found that: “Achieving a balance between promoting academic attainment and well-being should not be regarded as a zero-sum activity. Greater well-being can equip pupils to achieve academically. If the pressure to promote academic excellence is detrimentally affecting pupils, it becomes self-defeating.”
As the head of a Norfolk primary school put it, “Mental health issues are probably our biggest barrier to academic progress,”
Narrow curriculum and exam regime to blame
Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, placed the blame for English children’s unhappiness on the “narrow curriculum” and “exam factories” culture, pointing out that children at the beginning of primary education were being branded as “failures”.
Special educational needs co-ordinator Suzanna Bellamy flagged the damage caused by the move to a knowledge-based curriculum which had taken the fun and creativity out of school.“Bring back a skills-based, creative curriculum where we can provide much better outcomes for children but particularly our vulnerable groups.”
The Department for Education responded to one report by asking schools to make sure that pupils were supported at times of pressure. “Tests are a key part of ensuring young people master the skills they need to reach their potential and succeed in life.”
Yet we know that there are a number of countries such as Finland and Estonia which achieve better results than England does but do not test children until the end of high school. There are huge numbers of assumptions being made which ignore all the evidence about what actually works and how children learn, and it’s children who are paying the price.