While recently watching the Disney remake of Beauty and the Beast, a metaphor for the current state of our education system came to mind.
You may know the tale: a handsome prince is bewitched by a spell and is transfigured into an ugly beast. His loyal servants become household objects, yet retain a sense of their humanity, reminding them of who they were before the spell was cast.
A similar spell has been cast over the education system. What should be a beautiful profession has been transformed into something ugly and fear-inducing. Teachers are trapped within it, aware of how things ought to be, but powerless to change their fate until they can find a way to reverse the spell.
Mental health crisis
I spent 10 years volunteering and working in education before becoming a psychotherapeutic counsellor. I now work with both young people and adults – and have come to recognise the damage that we are doing in forcing children to learn by rote in order to pass endless tests and to ensure that the country performs well in league tables. Education is so much more than learning to tick a box, yet we are coaching children to excel at standardisation and to develop self-critical mindsets as a result. Self-criticism has been found to be a key contributor to anxiety and depression, so it is no wonder that we are now facing a mental health crisis.
Ministers developing education policies need to remember that it is not only the academic subjects that are important but also a more nuanced education: understanding how we relate to and empathise with others, learning how to regulate our emotions and to appreciate our individuality and creativity.
In psychotherapy, we learn that, as infants, we gain our sense of self and our belief in the safety of the world from our close relationships with those around us. Teachers have a greater psychological impact on the young than they may realise.
'Time is running out'
Those in education need to understand that any adult in contact with a child in a relational context is wiring their brains, potentially for their lifetime. This includes those teaching secondary students. Adolescence is still a time of brain configuration. Our understanding of neuroscience highlights that the teenage brain is going through immense change and yet this is the time that we put young people through the huge stress of external examinations.
Teachers do not need to be experts in mental health – we have mental health professionals to be those – but they do need to understand the impact they have on others. Their increasing stress levels are putting them in a highly anxious state, which, as we know from neuroscience, can be mirrored by those around them, specifically the children they are teaching.
Time is running out to break the spell. The wonderful teachers who love their profession and those with the ability to inspire are becoming more inanimate by the term. They are losing their autonomy to be creative and relational in order to fulfil the need for standardisation and rote – or they are leaving the profession.
In the fairytale, a stranger arrives to save the prince and his servants from their fate. What or who is going to save us and our humanity?
Deborah Spratling is a psychotherapeutic counsellor based in Norwich