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The state of pupils’ mental health shames us all

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The world has gone topsy-turvy. As the government announces wholesale academisation and everyone obsesses about structures, we seem to have forgotten the very people that education is for: the children, the supposed beneficiaries of improvements to the school system.

We are putting young people under unprecedented pressure, assessing and testing them relentlessly from an early age.

And who is it all for? Very little is for the children themselves; it’s mainly for the system, to hold schools to account and to measure performance so that the government can show progress and justify their reforms.

Do young people need GCSEs any more now that the age of compulsory education and training has increased to 18? No, most of them don’t. But the government does for Progress 8.

We are sucking all the joy out of learning as we get young people primary-ready, secondary-ready, university-ready and work-ready. Unsurprisingly, this makes teenagers in England very unhappy. Some 73 per cent of 15-year-old girls and 52 per cent of 15-year-old boys said that they were feeling pressured by schoolwork in a World Health Organisation report published this week.

England ranked fifth out of 42 countries in teens expressing dissatisfaction with their lot in the four-yearly Health Behaviour in School-aged Children study. Researchers said that they were struck by the decline in life satisfaction among young people between the ages of 11 and 15.

Children have always had to take exams and this has always caused anxiety. But never at the levels we see today. So what do we do about these rising levels of stress? Do we try to relieve young people of some of the unnecessary pressure that they are under? No, instead we tell them to learn to cope by offering them a few lessons in character, resilience, perseverance, grit and mindfulness.

Mis-Guided priorities

Even the Girl Guides have got in on the act. The organisation that was all about building good old-fashioned pluck and spirit has announced a “Resilience” badge designed to develop mental wellbeing.

This badge follows the “Body Confidence” badge of two years ago. Girls can earn that particular badge through tasks such as spotting airbrushed photographs.

Isn’t that sad? Young girls should not have to worry about identifying unfeasible body shapes when they look in magazines and newspapers. The truth is that instead of looking in the mirror to find imperfections in themselves, they should look out of the window – where they would see an increasingly ugly society.

What we are doing to our children is horrific. The latest move by Girlguiding may be well-intentioned, but it is misguided (no pun intended). They should be teaching children about knots, not tying themselves up in them.

Standing by while children are put under tremendous pressure then slapping a badge on their uniform for their troubles doesn’t address the underlying societal problem, and it teaches young people that quietly coping is something to be rewarded – hardly a message that is going to help the shocking decline in children’s mental health.

But more to the point, since when have we as a society devolved responsibility for children’s wellbeing to the young people themselves? Surely it’s the job of adults to ensure that these are not issues with which they should be bothered? It is a dereliction of duty on our part.

Shame on us.


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