In this blog I look at how recent education policy has contributed towards schools being at least partially responsible for the deteriorating mental health of the young people (YP) they serve. I also explore what we need to do to ensure that we learn from our mistakes of the past.
March this year saw the publication of a report (Cortina & Linehan, 2021) that explores the perception of YP in schools as to how they view mental health and the support that their institutions offer; a pertinent issue in the UK in 2021. Whilst the pandemic may be a contributory factor, the increase in mental health problems from one in eight to one in six between 2017 and today is alarming and needs addressing urgently. Unfortunately, it seems that recent changes in education have impacted negatively YP emotional wellbeing. The question needs to be asked whether we have learnt from our past mistakes or are we going to make them over again?
Adolescent mental health is an ever-increasing problem
Changing culture and changing values
During my career, first as a classroom teacher and then as a pastoral assistant headteacher, I noticed a gradual but distinct change in school ethos as an education enterprise culture was introduced. From the 1970s onwards successive governments built upon the work of previous administrations as a culture fuelled by competition seeped in to, subsumed and changed forever school values. As schools have grown in to multi-million-pound academy chains then so their values have changed. Schools that were once controlled by local authorities have been channelled along an individualised, corporate and selfish route. I would argue that values have been skewed towards economics as institutions now need to compete with market forces in order to survive. From my own personal experience, I have seen ‘good and honest’ professionals push at both legal and moral boundaries when it comes to exams. Headteachers and Curriculum Leaders turning a ‘blind eye’ to ensure targets are achieved. I believe that the pressure of accountability through the market has eroded the value base within the profession.
Policies introduced to facilitate this change required a new breed of headteacher. The traditional manager-academic was replaced by ‘quality-driven’ professionals whose job was to market the school, attract greater pupil numbers, improve results and hold their staff to account. Thatcher (1995), talked about ‘dependency culture’ and the problems created by the welfare state. Her aim was to replace this culture with the value of ‘self’ and this was reflected by what happened in schools. The values that once centred around the child refocussed on the market. It was about image, exam results and competition for market share; self-interest was required in order to thrive, or on occasions, just survive. School values were set by individual headteachers many of whom were under increasing pressure in this new competitive world where “institutional survival was at stake” (Grace, 1996). They chased the promise of money by becoming independent of LEAs. Improving exam results was essential as this was the new currency of success; bright, motivated and successful students would add value through exams and were therefore valued by schools.
Whilst government policy was about economics, market share and self-interest, individual schools first priority should have been the YP they serve. The balance between what is best for the school and what is best for the YP that it attracts, is a delicate one. This new breed of headteacher focussed on school survival via exam success, and some YP did not fit this new essential profile. A YP with mental health problems was unlikely to provide value in terms of image or exam results and the outcome was that schools shunned them! School finance that was required to provide services to support such YP was required but money was often unavailable as budgets were being concentrated on marketing and results.
Education policy has been detrimental to young people’s mental health
Exams, exams, exams
The underlying messages from government and OFSTED was that the only currency that counted was exam results. The introduction of targets and school league tables filtered down to create a culture of performativity. This was taken to extremes by teachers who were in fear of failure; failure not of their students but of reaching their ever increasing, continuously stretched and often unrealistic targets. This had little to do with child-centred education (O’Neill, and Adams, 2012). The post-war welfare agenda had been overtaken by a neoliberal one that valued the market and self. Unfortunately, the legacy of these policies lives on today and is still impacting on some of our most vulnerable YP.
The policies introduced to increase competition have resulted in an increase in ‘high-pressure’ exams which in turn have contributed to the poor mental health of some of our vulnerable YP (Glazzard, 2019). 80% of young people surveyed by Young Minds cited academic pressure as a factor that impacted on their mental health (Cowburn & Blow, 2017). Unfortunately schools under pressure to perform transferred this pressure on to staff and students increasing anxiety in both (ASCL, n.d.). Teaching to the test (Stotesbury & Dorling, 2015) and the reduction in social time during the school day (Baines E, 2019) were responsible for this pressure increase and as a teacher, I saw extra after school catch-up classes as well as weekend and holiday sessions introduced. These were taken as the norm; few questioned their worth and even fewer had thought about the impact it was having on the mental health of our YP. In addition the drive for exam success has seen a narrowing of the curriculum that has resulted in an alienation of our YP (Glazzard, and Stones, 2021).
The intention of the latest OFSTED framework (Ofsted, 2019) was to change the focus from exam results as a limiting factor in school inspections, to a broader holistic approach. Whilst I can site examples of schools following the OFSTED lead and trying to redress the balance, it is also clear that other schools continue to chase the golden egg of exam results. One such example is the academy trust that assesses Yr11 students six times between January and April and then replaces ‘under-performing’ teachers with ‘superteachers’ whose job it is to hit the class targets!
Schools need to move away from the exams at all cost culture
As we come out of lockdown and young people return to school now is the time to reassess our values to ensure that YP are at the heart of everything we do. Schools need to focus on what is best for their students; yes, it is important that they achieve to their potential but that doesn’t mean increasing anxieties through pressured schooling. Workload, the stress of exams and general school experience all contribute towards YP’s deteriorating mental health (Cortina & Linehan, 2021). We need to listen to what YP are telling us and return to a school value base that has its foundations in child centred approaches.
Schools need to focus on a holistic education that is centred on the young people best interests.
Conflict of interests: None
- Blog ‘Redistributing power in schools and how this can impact young people’s agency and identity’ by Dave McPartlan (September 2023)
- Blog ‘Developing schools to enhance young people’s mental health’ by Dave McPartlan (June 2023)
ACSL. (n.d.). Struggling students are ‘completely demoralised’ by tough new GCSEs.
Baines E, B. P. (2019). School break and lunch times and young people’s social lives: A follow-up national study. Retrieved from https://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/follow-survey-break-and-lunch-times-schools
Cortina, M., & Linehan, T. (2021). Working towards mentally healthy schools and FE colleges : the voice of students. Retrieved from https://mentallyhealthyschools.org.uk/media/2595/working-towards-mentally-healthy-schools-and-fe-colleges-final.pdf
Cowburn, A., & Blow, M. (2017). Wise up: Prioritising wellbeing in schools. Retrieved from https://youngminds.org.uk/media/1428/wise-up-prioritising-wellbeing-in-schools.pdf
Glazzard, J. (2019). A whole-school approach to supporting children and young people’s mental health. Journal of Public Mental Health, 18(94), 256–265. https://doi.org/doi:10.1108/ JPMH-10-2018-0074
Glazzard, Jonathan, & Stones, S. (2021). Supporting Young People ’ s Mental Health : Reconceptualizing the Role of Schools or a Step Too far ? 5(February), 1–5. https://doi.org/10.3389/feduc.2020.607939
Grace, G. (1996). School Leadership:Beyond Educational Management. London: Falmer.
O’Neill, J. and Adams, P. (2012). “Damned to mediocrity”: political targets, bureaucratic intent, classroom performativity and the child as cipher. New Zealand Journal of Teachers’ Work, 9, 1–5.
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Stotesbury, N., & Dorling, D. (2015). Understanding Income Inequality and its Implications : Why Better Statistics Are Needed. Retrieved from STATS & DATA SCIENCE VIEWS website: http://www.dannydorling.org/wp-content/files/dannydorling_publication_id4984.pdf
Thatcher, M. (1995). The Downing Stree Years. London: Harper Collins.