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It's time to get students out of the pressure-cooker classrooms created by league tables and Ofsted

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New research this week revealed that rising numbers of university students are struggling to cope with life at university, with sharp rises in the demand for counselling. This is a worrying find and an issue which from my experience must be tackled much earlier in the education process.

We work with many schools across the UK and one of the main problems we witness is young people who are too anxious to concentrate, learn and ultimately reach their potential – a sad state of affairs, especially at a time of life which is supposed to be the most enjoyable.

So where does the blame for this lie? As a society we are obsessed with test results and league tables, and schools will do anything they can for strong grades and a good Ofsted. This message is passed on to students via teachers, with a feeling that their worth and ultimately likelihood of success, comes down to a letter on an exam paper.

Children know this from a young age, way before secondary school or even university, and a stringent focus on only measuring what they’ve remembered from their lessons. Ever test becomes a trial, a pressure point and this relentless focus on results can only be detrimental to their learning.

We expect our young people to finish their education and enter the working world full of life, ready to make a real contribution to their employer and ultimately the economy. Yet how can we do this when an increasing number of young people are facing serious stress-related issues, collapsing under a weight of pressure?

All these things hold young people back and, if we can’t drastically adapt what we expect of them and how we communicate it, the least we can do as a society is give them the tools to deal combat these issues. 

The classroom is by definition a focused, often intense environment, and while of course students must spend time there and learn the basics of education that will serve them throughout their lives, getting out of the classroom is one of the best ways to both widen learning and relieve stress.

As adults we don’t choose to relieve our work stresses by staying in the office. We go to the gym, the pub, the cinema, the park, home to our families – pretty much anywhere else. Children should be out trying new things – arts, trips overseas, a variety of sports, learning a musical instrument are just a few examples. They develop new, rewarding skills, broaden their horizons, feel good about themselves and ultimately forget that they are at school – unwinding from the classroom.

Through a balanced educational programme, with more time spent learning outside of the classroom or lecture theatre, we will see improved learning and greater enthusiasm to return to a school or university hall, with young people feeling confident, refreshed and ready to learn.

Rigidity is the enemy of learning at any age and we must get creative with how we develop our young people, if this youth stress issue is to be tackled once and for all.

Charlie Rigby is founder of the Challenger Trust, a government-backed organisation providing learning outside the classroom

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