Back to school

Dr Lucy Maddox
Dr Lucy Maddox is a consultant clinical psychologist and writer, and part of the Avon ACAMH committee. She is the author of 'Blueprint: How Our Childhood Makes Us Who We Are' and a new book for children 'What is Mental Health?' which is due out January 2020.

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It’s back to school time. The air is changing and it’s the season of buying new pencil cases, trying to fit into last year’s school uniform, and anticipating a whole new school year.

I liked school more than I disliked it, but I still felt that feeling of dread the night before going back. Accumulating research on child and adolescent wellbeing suggests that today’s students might be  feeling dread even more, for a wide variety of reasons.

The Children’s Society recently published their annual report, written in collaboration with the University of York and bringing together qualitative and quantitative findings on children’s wellbeing. Key data include the much reported statistic that nearly a quarter of 14 year old girls have self-harmed in the last year. The report also highlights that being a girl, being attracted to the same sex and coming from a low income family are all risk factors for lower wellbeing, and that gender stereotypes are unhelpful for boys and girls alike.

The report talked about the importance of schools trying to foster environments where difference is valued, although it didn’t talk so much about academic pressure. I asked David Putwain, Professor of Education and Childhood Studies at Liverpool John Moores University, and Kevin Payne, former primary school teacher and creator of the “Children, You Are Not Data” poster featured in the Guardian for their thoughts on how school environments and children’s wellbeing are interlinked.

Professor Putwain thinks that it’s not so much the number of exams that has had an impact on young people’s wellbeing, but an attitude: “The overbearing emphasis that academic success is the only kind of success.” He links this to a long history of children’s results being used as a measure of the quality of schools, and the lack of choice in the current school system which means non-academic children are forced down an academic route.

Increased reports of self-harm and mental health difficulties in young people are hard to disentangle from a shift in culture to talking about mental health problems more and the inevitable lag between policy changes and research findings adds to difficulty interpreting results, but Putwain sees a link between academic pressure and lower student wellbeing: “if you piece together the various pieces of the jigsaw from what we know already about child and adolescent mental health and wellbeing, the various contextual factors that sit around education, and the experiences of teachers working with students, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that there is a link.”

Putwain identified four main challenges facing young people in the current UK education system: “how to develop and nurture your own talents when they might not be those that are focused on in school, how to maintain esteem if you are not an academic person without withdrawing from school and education in general, how to deal with the overwhelming pressure of doing GCSEs, and how to understand the multiplicity of post-16 options available.”

So what can we be doing to help? Putwain praises schools which are doing more to support wellbeing around exams with a range of different psychological interventions. He wishes there was more room for psychological expertise in schools, and is watching with interest to see what the new mental health practitioners for schools proposed by the government will be able to do.

From a broader perspective Putwain wishes the policy makers were listening more, to young people, teachers and researchers. “No-one would seriously argue that we do not need accountability for teachers and schools, but it is done is such a blunt and ham-fisted way at the moment,” he said. “I would propose that we de-couple judgements about teachers and school performance from student achievement. Break the link that makes teachers and schools a conduit from top-down pressure.”

Putwain is clear that we need to think about why we are using assessment tools: is it to recognise and develop individual talents or discriminate academic from non-academic pupils? We currently do the latter, but it’s not doing much to prepare children for later life or nurture non-academic skills. “We have to bear in mind that England, Wales and Northern Ireland, are one of only a few countries (China, South Korea….Australia to a lesser extent) that have a high-stakes secondary school exit examination,” explained Putwain. “The rest of the world does OK without these.”

It’s certainly interesting to consider whether we are creating and organising school environments because they are good places for learning, or because they are good environments for helping us to manage behaviour and assessment. Children’s relationship with learning is linked to the relationship they have with their teachers and classmates and it’s hard to meaningfully separate academic achievement from emotional and physical wellbeing. If young people feel safe and secure in a classroom they can relax, ask questions, play… all things that help learning and also help with wellbeing. If students and teachers are stressed then these things suffer.

Kevin Payne taught at Landscore Primary School in Crediton until very recently (coincidentally a primary school I went to for a year way back in the 80s). Payne feels that the education system has become more stressful for children since he began working as a teacher in 2001. He explains that: “Advances in technology have made tracking and progress so easy to obtain that data has become the mark of how well a child, teacher or school is performing and the importance of it is, in my opinion, sometimes misplaced. Data is a very powerful tool which has lots of good points but it does not tell the whole story of how children learn and how they are progressing. Data does not see the whole child.”

As Payne acknowledges, education is always a hot topic for government and he feels that the current system has been influenced by a desire for this government to “outdo their predecessors.” Payne describes that: “Many of the things I used to teach in Year 5 are now present in the year 4 curriculum and so on. This cannot fail but lead to an increase in stress for all involved.”

Payne made the difficult decision to leave teaching, even though he still loves being in the classroom. “It is the overwhelming feeling that the system at present does not appear to satisfy my ethos that has lead me to leave,” he said. “I feel that one of the main challenges to young people is for them to feel valued in their interests and passions. It saddens me greatly to see so many reports of the state of mental health in so many of our young learners and something needs to change.”

The government has recognised the need for greater focus on child and adolescent mental health and wellbeing, although is yet to provide adequate funding to match its rhetoric or a clear strategy for what in-school intervention would look like. Whilst early preventative programmes can be really useful for young people, I can’t help but think that the newly proposed in-school mental health initiatives might to some extent be treating problems created by the education culture that has been set up.

Our attitude to learning affects us lifelong, opening or closing doors. Alan Watts, philosopher, wrote helpfully on this. Instead of constantly trying to “level up”, and reach the next thing on our “journey”, he thought we should be approaching life and learning more like a piece of music. We don’t rush to get to the end when we are playing or listening to a tune we love, we savour every moment of it, we sing and dance. The more we can create that feeling in the classroom the better we will be equipping our children and young people, for the educational task at hand but also for their life beyond the schoolgates.

Dr Lucy Maddox is a consultant clinical psychologist and writer, part of the Avon ACAMH committee and author of Blueprint: How Our Childhood Makes Us Who We Are.

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