'During my time working with the DfE I witnessed a lack of compassion, understanding and a disdain for the teaching profession'

13th September 2016 at 13:29
Pupil wellbeing
The government knows mental illness is affecting ever-greater numbers of the public but isn’t prepared to acknowledge its policies are directly responsible, says the government's former mental-health champion

Interdepartmental emails obtained by me under the Freedom of Information Act (as a result of some extremely savvy advice from my mate who works for a news website) revealed what we all suspected: the Department for Education asked me to be their mental health champion essentially because they had romantic delusions that I’d unquestioningly quote their press releases, thus making the Tory party look cuddly on daytime TV and in glossy magazines.

When it became clear that wouldn’t happen, they plotted to get rid of me.

A plan was mooted, but ultimately dispensed with, whereby the DfE would replace me as champ with a panel of young people with first-hand experience of mental illness. This was not, it would seem, out of any genuine ambition to give young people an authentic voice but so if I objected to being fired they could hit back in the press with the claim that I obviously don’t care about Britain’s youth as much as I purport to.

The department also went to extraordinary lengths to stop me giving my opinion on the since-abandoned compulsory academisation scheme.

'The problem is…she cannot be controlled'

When they fired me, they offered me another position working alongside Nicky Morgan, who was then minister for equalities in addition to being secretary for education, on issues relating to misogyny. The unspoken implication was that this offer was being made on the provision that I went quietly ("anything to seem helpful at this point", the emails I obtained say).

Someone (who I have worked out through a process of deduction was probably a special adviser to Ms Morgan) admits to having an "obsession" with me and implores "can we all monitor her Twitter feed?". The same person wrote: "the problem is…she cannot be controlled". It’s little wonder the education system is in such a state of disarray if this was considered a good use of civil servants’ time (and by extension the public funds which are used to pay them).

And that’s just the stuff they wrote down. Just image the private conversations they were having.

'Disdain for the teaching profession'

But ultimately, this story isn’t about me. This story is about a government which knows that mental illness is affecting ever-greater numbers of the public and is therefore a vote-winner, but isn’t prepared to acknowledge that in many cases its policies are directly responsible for decline in mental health. It is a government in a quandary, because it needs to be seen to be doing something which is having an impact on its electorate, but cannot do what actually needs to be done in order to effectively address the problem. It is about a government who are, ultimately, more interested in "seeming helpful" than in being helpful.

During my nine months working with the DfE I witnessed a lack of compassion, understanding and urgency, which I simply couldn’t reconcile with my on-the-ground experience in schools. I saw first-hand the disdain for the teaching profession and the casual dismissal of their concerns and needs.

I noticed that the "resilience" agenda was being used as an excuse to pile indefinite amounts of pressure on children and to blame their "lack of character" when they were unable to cope with the consequences.

'Education should prepare you for life'

It may very well be of course that Justine Greening represents an entirely new and refreshing era of genuine "listening mode". In which case I hope she will facilitate a discussion about what education is for, because that is, in fact, at the root of this debate.

There are those who view education, ultimately, as a recruitment process. The same people, bizarrely, seem to believe the memorising and regurgitating of what are, let’s face it, a fairly arbitrary set of facts is key to the ability to hold down a job.

Then there are those who believe an education should prepare you for life, that it is about learning skills which will prime you for the realities of the modern world, thus allowing you to flourish. Whilst I agree to an extent, I’d add a caveat.

Education is, in many regards, its own reward. There are countless things I learned at school and university which don’t particularly serve my day-to-day existence but which make my brain a better place to live.

Loving as I do words (even the sweary ones) the study I undertook which I treasure most relates chiefly to plays, poetry and prose. But equally, I know people who love nothing more than losing themselves in a maths problem (and by "people" I mean Countdown’s Rachel Riley – yes, she really does live for that stuff).

'Catastrophic for their mental health'

Contrary to those with a more binary view of things, I do not believe that a wellbeing agenda necessitates the doing away of more traditional education. But I do believe that the system is measuring ever-more narrow criteria for intelligence. I believe that there are many children whose talents lay dormant, undiscovered and unused and that in many cases those talents ultimately wither and die. And, perhaps most crucially, I believe that is catastrophic for their mental health and for ours as a nation.

In the words of Tyrian from Game of Thrones: "It is easy to confuse what is with what should be, particularly when it is what benefits you."

The voices we are hearing on education tend to be from people who have created a platform for themselves by dint of the fact that the current system works for them. They are not representative of the majority.

Education’s "biscuit is broken". Endless directives from above (or indeed the reversal on creation of new grammar schools) can’t fix a system which is rotten at its core.

I said to an education correspondent for one of the broadsheets the other day, when she asked me what I thought the solution to all this was: "I’ve gone a bit Russell Brand. I am starting to believe we need a revolution." And she replied: "I think you could do it. I really, really do."

I’m not pretending to have the ultimate answer, I just know that what we’re doing at the moment isn’t it.

So who’s with me?

Natasha Devon is the former government mental health champion for schools and founder of the Body Gossip Education Programme and the Self-Esteem Team. She tweets as @NatashaDevonMBE

You can read more about how to support the mental health of students and school staff in the 16 September issue of TES, which is a wellbeing special issue. To subscribe, click here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here. The magazine is available in all good newsagents.

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