In 2011, I wrote an open letter to then-education secretary Michael Gove, which was published in The Daily Telegraph and later reproduced in the Huffington Post. In it, I asked him to consider what effect his plans to narrow the curriculum, slashing the time spent on sports, arts and music, would have on children’s emotional wellbeing. I predicted that his drive to "improve standards" might result in a crisis in the mental health of young people. The letter finished:
“I am writing to you, Mr Gove, to beg you not to let the partisan rhetoric that has blighted Tory politics of late filter down to the sphere of young people's education.
"Please stop presenting the situation as a battle between those committed to academic excellence and those with a desire to incorporate lessons relating to the realities of modern life. There is no battle. The future of our young people is too important to create bogus divisions within the education sector for your own political gain.”
Needless to say, my letter went unanswered and my warnings unheeded.
It’s my observation that the world is broadly divided into two types of people: those for whom the link between wellbeing and academic achievement is obvious and therefore requires no explanation and those for whom it is not. And whilst Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tells us that human beings are incapable of learning unless they have their basic needs (which include self-esteem) met, it is an incredibly difficult relationship to measure on the ground.
This is one of the most frustrating things about my job, particularly when I’m met by a hostile geography teacher, seething that my PSHE class has meant their pupils have had to be removed from "proper" lessons. Or by a smug MP who insists that if every child can learn a Keats poem by rote by the time they are 14, it will magically lead to more social mobility.
Last week, my Self-Esteem Team attended a lecture at University College London by Martin Seager, who is part of a research team studying male psychology. In it, Seager argued that psychology suffers from "gender blindness", in that the profession is reluctant to consider the possibility that men have specific needs. Indeed, Seager argued, we are reluctant to think of men as a gender in their own right at all, thanks to the increasing prevalence of pop-feminism and a widely held and false notion that all men are inherently privileged, regardless of their socio-economic circumstances.
Neglecting boys' needs
The ensuing debate became focused on the under-performance of boys in the classroom compared with girls – why that might be and if it might be attributable to the lack of male teachers, particularly at primary level. That was when my colleague, Grace, passed me a note (retro-style).
Now before, I proceed, here are a few things you need to know about Grace: she has definitely been here before. She has a habit of saying incredibly profound things, and is able to sum up complex situations and the behaviour of others with borderline-frightening succinctness, in a way that makes the listener go all wide-eyed and say: "Oooh yeeeeeeah." I’d conservatively estimate that her soul is about 103 years-old. When she goes into schools, she’s regularly mistaken for a pupil, being as she is teeny tiny, with a youthful face and sense of style, but you should never underestimate her. She has your number. She is basically Yoda but less green and wrinkly.
The note said: “Isn’t it just that boys underperform because we look after their wellbeing less?”
It was a lightbulb moment. Afterwards, we discussed the numerous occasions we have visited schools and a decision has been made to divide the year group by gender, the girls coming with us for a lesson on mental health, body image or self-esteem and the boys being sent to have a lecture on not being sexist. Because apparently boys do not have brains or bodies, only an inbuilt penchant for misogyny.
The tide is turning. We are beginning to understand that boys have emotional needs too; they might be distinct from those of their female peers and they might be less able to articulate them. But in the meantime, if you want evidence that wellbeing programmes within schools have a direct impact on academic performance, look no further than the exam results of boys.
Natasha Devon was the Department for Education’s mental health champion until four weeks ago and tweets at @NatashaDevonMBE