'We cannot continue to apply adult amounts of pressure on young people and expect them to cope'

7th June 2016 at 16:53
Pupil mental health
We must address the fact that our education system, and we as a society, are failing to meet our children’s basic mental health needs, writes the head of the ATL

The state of our children’s mental health has been in the news recently. The redoubtable Natasha Devon, the former children’s mental health tsar and TES blogger, has unleashed a devastating critique of the effect of the government’s policies upon children and young people. Her well-evidenced contention that poverty is the biggest cause of children and young people’s mental ill health is deeply embarrassing for a government whose austerity policies are resulting in more and more young people experiencing the shame, the anxiety and mental illness that poverty brings in its wake.

I have written about the incidence of childhood poverty in our society, but the facts are so startling that they bear repeating.

The most recent (2015) report of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission concludes that the UK is fast becoming a more unequal society. Britain, the commissioners argue, is in danger of becoming a permanently divided nation. This does not have to be the case. There is nothing inevitable about child poverty and it can be reversed if there is the political will to do so. Between 1988-89 and 2011-12, 1.1 million children were raised out of poverty. In stark contrast, the fact that the proportion of children living in poverty is expected to increase to 20 per cent by 2020 should give us, as a nation, much cause for thought, and for shame. It remains, according to the commissioners, "a deep scar in the fabric of our nation".

Children and young people respond to the circumstances in which they find they live their lives. Poor and cold housing, lack of food, stressed and inadequate parenting, poor clothing, all affect their ability to perform well in the other areas of their lives. If basic needs are not met, then the climb to academic success becomes much harder and steeper than for those luckier children who live in secure family surroundings where the basics are taken for granted.

The effects of poverty are not just physical. The stress and insecurity that poverty creates in children and young people’s lives has a profound effect. In a recent speech to the HMC, the independent schools organisation, Natasha Devon argued powerfully that a child or adolescent’s brain is not the same as an adult’s brain – it is not fully formed and is at a crucial development stage. Children and young people, argued Devon, need to feel safe. They need to feel nurtured and valued. They need to have a creative outlet to express their emotions in a positive way. They need time and space to think to be able to play. And poor children and young people, whose lives are marred by the stress and anxiety caused by their poverty, need these things even more than other children, for whom they are essential.

A 'supportive' curriculum?

So the question must then be asked: is our education system responding to children’s developmental needs? Is it providing them with a creative, supportive, emotionally intelligent curriculum?

I will leave it to the experts to answer this question. Primary school teachers write to me in increasing numbers. They are becoming increasingly angry about the pressure that an out-of-control testing regime is putting on young children. One wrote to me: ‘I am not against testing, and have always used tests in some form in my teaching. However, I now feel that it is totally over-the-top. Some of the young girls in my class complained of stomach ache during the last assessment week and I worry that the pressure has passed on to the children. I do not feel that I can continue to work with this kind of pressure, but I love teaching and don’t want to stop. I have even considered emigrating so as to continue doing the job I love."

Now, there is a counter argument and it is one which is always used by the New Blob – those champions of a rigorous academic curriculum assessed by timed exams – which is this (in summary): life is tough, you have to compete. Children and young people have to learn to cope with pressure. Tests are a good way to introduce young people to pressured situations.

Natasha Devon has a powerful response to this position. She says, simply, that as a society we cannot apply adult amounts of pressure to children and young people and expect them to cope. Their brains, lest we forget, are developing, and do not respond at all well to relentless pressure. The costs, for our society, of failing to meet our children’s basic mental health needs are large and long-lasting, argues Devon. They include children growing up not only without a sense of attachment, which is crucial for good mental health, but also with low self-esteem – which is one of the key diagnostic criteria for the four most common mental illnesses in young people, which are anxiety, depression, self-harm and eating disorders.

Around one in three pupils in each class will suffer from a mental disorder. Beneath that stark and troubling fact lies another – that there will be other pupils who are distressed and troubled, but who are not "ill" enough to get the specialist support they so desperately need.

Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner, published, last week, a review of children’s mental health services which revealed that 13 per cent of youngsters with life-threatening conditions were not given specialist treatment. Around 248,000 children were referred for specialist mental health treatment last year but 28 per cent were refused, mostly on the grounds that their illness was not yet serious enough to merit specialist help. Longfield commented that "we are playing Russian roulette" with children’s lives.

This has to stop.

Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the ATL teaching union. She tweets as @MaryBoustedATL

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