Drive for better results in schools damaging pupils’ mental health

By Helen Ward on 07 September 2017

Children feel under pressure to do well from an early age, report finds

Pupils’ mental health is being affected by constant reminders that they are “not good enough” in terms of exam results, new research has found.

Even high-attainers can be made anxious by the pressures their schools can place on them to do well, researchers at Newman University, Birmingham, say in a study which is due to be presented at the annual conference of the British Educational Research Association (BERA) today.

The research looked at the experiences of young people who have left the mainstream state school system to go through “alternative provision” – which caters for pupils who cannot cope with mainstream education including those with behavioural problems, persistent truants and those suffering from anxiety or depression, or coping with bereavement.

In the paper being presented at the conference, researchers quote one primary school headteacher who said that some pupils are: “bombarded constantly with ‘I’m not good enough,’ whether it be outside [of school] socially and then in school that ‘I’m not meeting the national curriculum’, ‘I’m not meeting that required attainment’.”

Mental health struggle

A local authority official who heads its support service for “out-of-school” pupils suggested that some girls, in particular, might be struggling emotionally, having been put under pressure academically by their schools.

“The students who come out of schools in [an unnamed area] are often girls who are highly anxious and self-harm and that might be to do with the pressures that some schools put on them in terms of academic [attainment],” the official said.

The researchers carried out detailed “case study” evaluations of alternative provision in four local authority areas over six years, speaking to pupils, staff from both alternative provision units and schools which send pupils to them, parents and governors.

The paper questions whether “managed moves” – a system whereby a pupil can transfer to a different school or alternative provision centre having had behaviour problems at his or her original school – is working well, with some pupils reportedly repeatedly rejected by schools concerned seemingly about their results.

It also quotes a string of studies which have raised concerns about the mental health of children in the UK or England and the researchers link pupil well-being to the way schools are measured: including league tables, data-focused Ofsted inspections and test-driven performance reporting.

'Negative effects'

The researchers conclude: “As reported by both adults and young people, it is now evident that continuing governmental preoccupations with school performance data and the subsequent casting of young people as performance capital has very real negative effects for the well-being of young people.”

And the headteacher of one alternative provision centre said pupils were feeling the strain from an early age: “In the Key Stage 1 they’re in a more nurturing environment and then they go into KS2 and that’s where it doesn’t suit them…they try to struggle through the first year [Year 3], then they get to Year 4 and they’ve had it, really. That’s when the anxieties come out.

“We’ve just had a referral [to leave mainstream education to go to alternative provision] for a reception child, so you do wonder what’s going on,” the headteacher said.

The DfE has been contacted for comment.

“Alternative Provision in Four English Local Authorities: Findings from a multiple-case study evaluation” is being presented to BERA by Dr David Trotman, Professor Stanley Tucker and Dr Linda Enow of Newman University, Birmingham, on Thursday, September 7.

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