We are all very worried about the mental health of our young people; it seems to have become an epidemic that has crept up on us slowly over the decades. When I was at school as a boy - in the 60s and 70s - I was certainly aware of some adolescent depression around but nothing like the tragic scale of self-harming, eating disorders and suicide that we have come to regard nowadays as almost ‘normal’.
I know I am not alone as a headteacher in taking the mental health issues of my pupils very seriously. At Thorpe Hall we employ a full time counsellor to look after the needs of our pupils. And she is not alone; throughout the pastoral care team, teachers are engaged on a daily basis helping and supporting pupils through difficult times.
The government has reacted to this crisis by laudably putting a lot more funding into local mental health services and requests for help are now far more likely to receive a positive response from psychologists and psychiatrists. But that approach is treating the symptoms and doesn’t look at the root cause.
We might question whether modern-day lifestyles have led to a mental health crisis and that young people have lost the ability to spend proper time outdoors having fun, instead of being cooped up in their bedrooms in front of a screen. There is probably a lot of truth in that, and persuading our children to vary their pastimes to include plenty of fresh air seems like an instinctively correct parenting strategy.
But the pressure young people feel in school cannot be ignored. At a time of GCSEs, SATs and A levels, I can tell you that the pressure on those children sitting their public exams is overwhelming. These exams have become extremely ‘high stakes’ and there is one simple reason behind that – school performance league tables.
Abandoned many years ago in most developed countries, league tables remain a central plank in government attempts to apply accountability measures on schools and headteachers. In my view, these league tables are nothing short of evil. They are essentially unfair, not comparing like with like and not taking into account local variables. They put job-threatening pressure on headteachers and teachers who inevitably pass that pressure on to children. What happened to simply doing your very best and seeing what happened? Nowadays we tell young people that the rest of their lives rests on these exams, these results. No wonder our children have mental health problems!
Let’s simply drop this outmoded, old fashioned and irrational method of holding schools to account and see if it actually helps solve the problem of children self-harming and taking their own lives. Surely at this point anything is worth trying?
There has been much debate in the national press in recent weeks about the arguments for and against educating boys and girl separately. Indeed it is less than a year since myself I was quoted in The Times on this topic. It is common for education to be organised in what is called the ‘diamond’ shape, which means boys and girls are schooled together up to the age of 11, then separately from age 11 to age 16 and then back together again in the sixth form.
My own experience has given me insight into both systems because I attended a single sex boarding school from the age of 8 to the age of 18; but as a teacher and Headteacher I have only worked in mixed gender schools.
What are the arguments?
Separating girls and boys at 11 years old is partly justified by the arguments of ‘distraction’. The reasoning goes that boys and girls are better off not being distracted by each other because these are the early years of puberty and hormones. But in my experience of mixed gender schools it is remarkable how rarely girls and boys do actually pair off; if you walk into a classroom of a typical mixed secondary school you will see boys sitting on one side of the room and girls on the other – by choice. It is far more often the case that distractions arise from boys falling out with boys and girls falling out with girls.
Many people would argue that we still live in a society that is dominated by men, though it is surely a lot more equal than it used to be. The argument promoted by all-girls schools is that girls can flourish in an environment that is not dominated by boys and that you see this particularly in subjects like Science, where the take-up at A level is greater by girls who have attended a single sex school. All-boys schools promote the idea that boys thrive on competition more than girls and so an all-boys school can provide a competitive ethos to match that. In my experience, girls schools can be just as competitive – and anyway, competition is by no means the only way to motivate young people.
Preparation for life
The obvious counter argument to single sex education is that it does not prepare you for life. I have to say that with four brothers and ten years of single sex education I was not prepared to meet girls when I left school! Single sex education has a tendency to make the opposite sex seem extraordinary and mysterious to a young person, whereas mixed gender education has the effect of normalising the differences.
Parental choice in Southend
Parents in Southend appear to have a lot of choice when it comes to single sex education – St Thomas Moore for boys and St Bernard’s for girls along side the two boys High Schools and the two girls High Schools. On the other hand there are also plenty of mixed gender schools too. But shouldn’t two of the High Schools became mixed gender too? At the moment, if you pass the 11+, you have no choice but to attend a single sex school.
In my last article I talked about the wholesale changes the Government is making to GCSE and assessment of 16 year olds. More recently we have heard that the Government might decide to start testing our 7 year olds. Most people in education welcomed the withdrawal of testing of 7 year olds a few years ago and would not support their reintroduction now.
But what about rigour?
We often hear government talk about ‘rigour’ and promoting the idea that education, teaching and assessment should all be more ‘rigorous’. I have never been sure why the government feels education should be more rigorous – I do not recall anyone (teachers, parents or industry) saying that it needed to be. There are various definitions of the word ‘rigorous’ including ‘harsh’, ‘severe’ and ‘unrelenting’. In my view, when the government talks about tests being more rigorous, they basically mean ‘harder’. The thinking seems to be that if you make the test harder then overall educational standards will rise. Surely, if you make the test harder, you just build more failure into the system?
Do we learn by being tested?
Clearly testing pupils’ knowledge and understanding as you go along is sensible; it gives the teacher an idea of what has been learned and what remains unclear. It also motivates children to work towards a moment in time when they are expected to ‘know’ and prove that they ‘know’. That is common sense, but common sense goes out of the window when testing is over emphasised. If we use tests to make sweeping judgements about teachers and schools, then the balance between spending time engaged in learning and preparing for the test gets distorted. Instead of leaving revision and exam practice to the end of the course, teachers start lesson 1 with, ‘This is what you need to know to pass the test’. Opportunities for wider exploration, for independent thinking and sheer enjoyment are swallowed up by the need to pass the test. By putting too much emphasis on testing we are valuing the things we can measure, rather than measuring the things we value.
Do we have the right curriculum?
The curriculum taught in schools is often criticised as not properly preparing young people for the world of work, or indeed, life in general. I have some sympathy with that view. For me skills and attributes such as charm, self-confidence, perseverance, empathy, self-knowledge and a keen sense of morality are just as important as being able to calculate the area under a curve or interpret a cryptic poem. But the over-emphasis on testing, especially in English and Maths, forces schools to play down the ‘life skills’ element of education in favour of gaining the grades needed to prove the pupils ‘know’ and the teachers can ‘teach’.
What do you ask a young person?
I hope that when you meet a child or young person you won’t always fall into trap of asking them what grades they expect as they head for the next end-of-key-stage tests set by government; instead I hope you will ask them if they are a good friend, and about what they have been doing outside the classroom to gain personal and life-enhancing experiences. Show them the importance of charm and humour, and share your experiences of the rewards you gained by being determined and persistent. The government may want us to believe that testing should lie at the heart of education, but we don’t all have to buy into that idea.