'Our reliance on endless high-stakes assessment makes teachers and students unhappy and deeply anxious'

It is to our shame that children at all levels of schooling are failed by a lack of meaningful joined-up thinking across our public services that means their emotional health does not come first

Maggie Atkinson

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Reading the review of mental health from a commission led by Paul Farmer this week, and the announcement of new – or is it? – funding for services, I am struck by how easily we isolate problems, keeping them in one policy arena rather than stepping back and thinking of things in the round.

"One in 10 children aged 5-16 has a diagnosable problem such as conduct disorder (6 per cent), anxiety disorder (3 per cent), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (2 per cent) or depression (2 per cent). Children from low-income families are at highest risk, three times that of those from the highest." One in 10: three in a typical class. Yes, really.

Last week Twitter went crazy trying to get education secretary Nicky Morgan to sit 2016’s key stage 2 maths Sat. This comes hard on the heels of the grammar test – with which, having successfully taught exam candidates and inspected English, I admit I struggled. Perhaps I’m not as interested in whether a clause is subjunctive as I am in what a well-constructed sentence or poem makes me think about or feel. Aged 11, immersed in classrooms and libraries full of reading matter I devoured, coming from a home with library membership, a daily paper, gardening and cookery books, the dictionary, classic novels, Desert Island Discs’ two totems of Shakespeare and the Bible, I wanted to write. I wanted to make a reader laugh, cry, think, be surprised, agree or disagree. I wanted adults to teach me both how to manipulate language, and how to recognise when it was manipulating me. Sticking labels on something as fluid, as constantly moving and fickle, as subtly layered and shifting as the language I love, interested me less. Still does, I’m afraid.

I appreciate that the causes of children and young people’s mental health problems are many and varied. Just as they are in adults, they are triggered by a wide range of causes, and every child dealing with them is different. I don’t believe it is a coincidence that anxiety, depression and stress in childhood are on the rise; or that yet another international comparison exercise told us this week that English children are unhappy and state stress at school as a source, when we seem insistent on reinforcing a model of successful education based on tests as the be-all and end-all. It is not woolly liberalism to say that an over-reliance on high-stakes assessment, and doing that assessment as often as we do with our children here from the age of 3 or 4, is ill-suited to our current, let alone our economy’s, demands on a flexible future workforce.

'National shame'

It is a shame – in the sense of us being shamed, not just it "being a shame" – that one side effect is seen, by heads and teachers in all sectors of schooling, in rising numbers of unhappy, distressed or deeply anxious children. You or I do not learn or perform as we ought to when we are in one of those upsetting and distracting states. We seem, as a nation, to be surprised that the same dampers on performance could affect our young. We shouldn’t be.

Society’s many priorities must surely include supporting the health and happiness of our children and young people. Schools and early years settings are acutely aware of this duty and vocation. We should, as this week’s report stresses, set about equipping teachers to be more able to help them thrive, primarily through having consistent time and space to be more than test or exam coaches. Schools also need dedicated counselling support, aided by initiatives from charities like Place2Be.

More than the oft-stated rhetoric, the “we’ll fix it” commitment, this is about the need for balance in education: for a focus on the development of the person, not just the exam success statistic. Schools want to nurture young talent and imagination, to support expression, to feed the physical person through sport, music, dance, and to help children see school as a fun, supportive environment where they can try to transcend their circumstances.

Please don’t tell me this is just me being a vaguely smiling beneficent Pollyanna. I know so many schools do this work already and have some of the best exam results in the country. Some of the world’s most successful schools systems (including Finland and Canada) also know, and practise, this balanced truth with and for their children.

Putting the mental health of children first is a win-win. Got right, it can help avert societal problems further down the line, enabling young people to reach their potential.

So: is Mr Hunt talking to Ms Morgan about passing this, perhaps their biggest, test? Can we finally have some meaningful joined-up thinking across our public services that means children’s mental and emotional health needs are really put first?

Professor Maggie Atkinson is chair of A New Direction, London’s flagship cultural education agency. She is a management consultant at iMPOWER, and former children’s commissioner for England.

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Maggie Atkinson

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