'We value people by how hard they work. The result has been the sacrifice of our collective mental health'

3rd May 2016 at 17:50
low self-esteem, sats, parents' strike, natasha devon
The parents' Sats protest isn’t just about testing – it asks broader questions about the nature of childhood and the purpose of education. What teachers and parents are saying tugs at the very fabric of our society, says the government's mental health champion

During my final year at primary school, we took an exam. It might have been the 11-plus –  I’m not sure. What I can still remember, vividly, is the feeling I had when our papers were returned to us, marked, the following week. There was a palpable sense of tension as our (notoriously strict*) teacher silently handed us back our papers.

Then she returned to the front of the class and said: “There was only one pupil and one pupil only who got 100 per cent on this test. Will that pupil please stand up?”

As I rose from my chair, I felt a mixture of things. Slight embarrassment, a huge amount of pride but, overwhelmingly, the absence of THE VOICE.

I’ve had THE VOICE for as long as I can remember. In nursery school my best friend, who was (shockingly!) a boy, gave me an Easter present – a pink plastic pig full of miniature Kinder eggs that his terribly glamorous American mum had brought over from the States and instructed him to give to his “favourite girl”. He had a blue and a green pig to match and, as we played with them on the hopscotch markings in the school yard, THE VOICE taunted me, insisting that he must have given me the present by mistake. He was new to the class, THE VOICE taunted. He didn’t know me that well. He only liked me because he hadn’t seen what I was really like.

Silencing the voice

THE VOICE was, I now recognise, low self-esteem, and the first time I was tested I learned that it could be temporarily silenced through achievement. As long as someone else had decided I was the best at something, I had a measurable means of proving THE VOICE wrong.

Throughout secondary school, I answered questions fastest, handed in the longest essays, did the most extracurricular activities, as a means of squashing THE VOICE for a minute, an hour, or a day. I could never shut it up permanently.

The problem was, of course, that when I was released into the Big Wide World, when I found myself at university with 10,000 peers, all of whom were academically exceptional, I had no way of silencing THE VOICE. (Incidentally, this was pre-social media. Young people now have an entire globe to compete with, making it even less likely they’ll be the best.) And so I punished myself as another way of acknowledging THE VOICE – I starved, binged, purged, scratched myself, drank until I blacked out, exercised until I felt faint, sought the attentions of inappropriate people: anything that would express my low self-worth. THE VOICE had won, and by the age of 25 I was unemployed and failing at life.

Catastrophic effects

Whenever we talk about testing and the impact it has on children, we tend to focus on SEN pupils, or those who aren’t as academically gifted. But testing has an impact on children at the other end of the spectrum, too. Testing teaches children that someone else’s opinion of them is more important than their opinion of themselves, the effects of which can be catastrophic – not just for those who don’t quite meet the mark.

Today, thousands of parents have been striking: removing their children from school in protest over the SPaG tests, which they say are too rigorous for the tender ages of six and seven. Many commentators have scoffed at this. After all, what on earth is wrong with raising standards?

My understanding is that this strike is about more than just the SPaG tests. It’s a protest against what the tests represent, which is the direction our education system has taken and the values we inflict on young people.

To prioritise arithmetic and grammar means sacrificing something else, because there are only so many hours in a school day, particularly in the state sector. Art and sport will probably be the first things to go, and eventually the meanings behind books will be missed because children will be focused on the placement of the commas and whether the sentence contains a split infinitive.

This strike isn’t just about testing – it asks much broader questions about the nature of childhood, the purpose of education and the kind of world in which we live.

Talking 'bout a revolution

People are frightened because the statement parents and teachers are making today tugs at the very fabric of our society. If we say that it is wrong to make schools uber-competitive through testing and the response is that "life is competitive", the conversation will naturally move to whether we should change life, change our culture, change absolutely everything. Increasingly, the Western world tends to value people by how hard they work, how much money they earn and how many possessions they have. These values are instilled in children from the minute we compare them with one another and the result has been the sacrifice of our collective mental health. We’re talking revolution, here.

Most of all, though, conversations around today’s strike have held a mirror up to the public’s attitude towards teachers, and the reflection is very ugly indeed. Teachers have been accused of having a political agenda, of being work-shy and untrustworthy.

During almost a decade visiting schools, I have found the teaching profession to be one characterised by caring. Teachers work ridiculous hours, they take on responsibilities outside the remit of their job spec, they can sometimes tell you more about the personal and emotional lives of their pupils than parents can. If there was ever a group of turkeys who would vote for Christmas if they genuinely believed it was in the best interests of children and young people, it is teachers (and possibly junior doctors…but I digress).

It is teachers who understand the education system and can see how it is transforming under the current regime. It is teachers who have sounded the alarm. And perhaps it is time we listened – not just for the children who might have struggled with the SPaG tests, but for those, like me, who will fall foul of what testing teaches them about how they should value themselves and the kind of world in which they find themselves.

*When I say “strict”, I mean that some of what she did would be illegal now.

Natasha Devon is the Department for Education’s mental health champion and tweets at @NatashaDevonMBE

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