Stressed students prove education metrics must change

A generation of anxious and stressed students entering society will help no one, says Geoff Barton, who says we must refine how we measure educational outcomes
26th November 2021, 1:21pm
Geoff Barton

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Stressed students prove education metrics must change

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"What a wise parent would wish for their children, the state should wish for all its children". So said the historian R. H. Tawney.

He was reminding us - in case we need reminding - of the responsibility we have across education to develop in all our children the knowledge, skills, values and attributes that will enable them, in due course, to take their place as successful, well-rounded citizens.

Hold onto that aspiration. Because a study published this week paints a disturbing picture of the inner lives of far too many of our young people.

The research, conducted by Edurio on 45,000 pupils, found alarming rates of stress and anxiety. For example, only 47 per cent of children said they had been "feeling well" in the period leading up to the study, and 46 per cent said they were often stressed.

Stressed childhoods

Unsurprisingly, stress levels and bad sleep were at their worst in GCSE years.

The research found a correlation between pupil wellbeing and the school's Ofsted rating, with 49 per cent of students at "outstanding" schools reporting high stress levels, compared to 44 per cent at "good" schools.

Of course, the notion of a carefree childhood, free of worry, filled with wonder, is the stuff of saccharine mythmaking. Outside Enid Blyton's universe, childhood has rarely been like that.

However, the scale of childhood stress reflected in this survey - and numerous other studies in recent years - must give cause for some searching questions.

A warping effect

What on earth are we doing to our children and young people? Childhood should surely be a time in life that is relatively insulated from the blasts of pressure and anxiety that can underpin adult life.

The trouble, of course, is that our qualification system is inherently stressful. In fact, it would be hard to conceive of a much more effective way of heaping pressure on young people.

In normal years, the qualifications system requires them to study for a large number of GCSEs that involves memorising a vast amount of information, sit more than 30 hours of exams, and then judges their performance through a mechanism that ensures around one-third fall short of the bar in English and maths. 

During the pandemic, students have had to cope with constant disruption and the uncertainty of how they will be assessed. 

But these grades aren't just used to sift young people. Schools are then judged on how well their pupils do in these qualifications, culminating in league tables and other accountability systems.

"Outstanding" schools have won their "outstanding" rating precisely because of the outcomes of their students under this high-stakes high-stress system.

The Ofsted issue

This doesn't mean teachers are flogging their students relentlessly through those qualifications. The pressure often comes from the students themselves, and from their families. 

The link here is that doing well in qualifications and stress are intertwined so it is very likely that there will be more stressed pupils in schools that have more high-performing students.

To be fair to Ofsted, whose judgements lurk behind this dynamic, it has endeavoured under its new framework to extend its gaze beyond outcomes and to assess the wider quality of the curriculum. 

But a glance at the school inspection handbook quickly confirms that outcomes remain an important factor. In measuring the impact of a school's curriculum, for example, it says that: "A well-constructed, well-taught curriculum will lead to pupils learning more and so achieving good results."

And the other arm of the accountability system - school performance tables - is, of course, based almost entirely on outcomes as measured through the complexity of Progress 8 which also drives the need for students to sit a large number of GCSEs.

Where is the joy in learning?

None of this is intended to mean that there should be no focus on outcomes. I am not advocating some sort of qualification-free, back-to-nature schooling system.

Children do need to be able to read, write, do arithmetic, learn the principles of science, and know about history, culture and other stuff too. Indeed, we need them to be better at some of the basics than many of them are now.

But is it really necessary for the qualification and accountability system to be quite so remorseless and mechanistic in order to achieve these things? Shouldn't we give more attention to the things that build wellbeing and good mental health?

The government has spent years endlessly talking about the importance of standards and rigour - which is all well and good - but it has simply gone too far in the clunky way it has driven this agenda.

It too often feels like the outcome is not improved rigour and standards, but turning out too many anxious and stressed children for whom learning is a chore rather than a joy.

Ideas to help

There are simple ways to fix this. We could reduce the number of GCSEs that young people sit and put more curriculum breathing room into key stage 4.

We could switch to a different way of assessing English and maths - a passport-style qualification which, taken at stage rather than age, built on a collective ambition that every child is entitled to the dignity of achievement in the basics of English and maths. 

We could tweak specifications to make them less reliant on memorisation. We could recalibrate performance measures so they reflect the totality of what schools do rather than just narrow qualification results.

Ministers could talk more about sport, the arts, the joy of making things, character-building, young people's mental health - about important things not easily measured.

None of this is difficult. None of it requires a watering down of standards. 

The time to act is now

The pandemic has exposed many of our educational faultlines, as well as its strengths.

It provides the government with an opportunity to think of some fresh ideas rather than constantly rechurning the same tired old mantras built on a misguided notion that more of the same ("higher targets, harder tests") will deliver any genuine improvement in standards.

This week's bleak survey of young people's wellbeing should be an urgent nudge to raise our aspirations, to look again through R. H. Tawney's eyes.

We need the state to regain the mantle of the wise parent who would surely want to develop, nurture and reward the totality of young people's distinctive abilities and attributes, rather than leaving too many of them feeling they are reduced to, and defined by, a handful of grades. 

There's a new White Paper on education being formulated in Whitehall. Here is the opportunity, through that process, for the secretary of state to raise the nation's collective ambition as surrogate parents for the nation's young people. 

Now is most definitely the time.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

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