Telling pupils they can fly will lead to crash landings

Urged to set their sights high, pupils feel the need to achieve excellent grades. No wonder they feel stressed, says Bernard Trafford

Child, wearing wings, trying to take off in a field

More than 80 per cent of teachers reckon that focus on exams has become so “disproportionate” that exams are now valued more than wellbeing. Meanwhile, 80 per cent of pupils claim that exam pressure is adversely impacting on their mental health. 

Two major findings from research by the Health Foundation link concentration on academic outcomes to inadequate mental health support for pupils in schools.

The Health Foundation, The Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition and the Centre for Mental Health are calling for a review of the impact of the UK’s exam systems on young people’s wellbeing and mental health. They also want the inspectorates, Ofsted included, to look beyond attainment and assess schools on their efforts to promote a “whole-school approach”. 

It would be easy to blame it all on government pressure and lack of funding. They are certainly a significant part of the problem. I’ve discussed on innumerable occasions how schools feeling the squeeze of government and inspectoral pressure to get top results will inevitably transmit anxiety to pupils

And there’s no money for mental-health support. Thus the accountability and funding regimes need a review as much as the exam structure does.

Exams are doing harm

Nonetheless, children are pretty resilient: note how readily most adapt to the whims and vagaries of individual teachers (to the despair of schools that demand teacher conformity). 

Yet four out of five pupils say they’re stressed. The sheer size of that proportion suggests that the effect is not felt by any single social, ethnic or ability group. It must be, one concludes, right across the board.

So, rather than lambast government yet again, on this occasion I’ll explore another – less structural, more cerebral and emotional – reason why exams are doing harm to young people’s wellbeing.

Here’s my question, then: a theory untested and maybe a little weird. Could a major culprit be a tendency to promote excessive aspiration?

For decades we (and I include myself) have rightly been battling to raise pupils’ aspiration. “Just good enough” is no longer good enough: students must “be the best they can be”. Aspirational epigrams adorn school walls, urging kids to remember that, if they believe in themselves, they can fly – almost literally, although such overweening self-confidence ended badly for Icarus, I recall.

Outside rigid hierarchies

I’m not having a go: inculcating aspiration and ambition is an essential part of education. Gone (and not before time) are the days when children were expected to know their place: one allotted to them by birth and a rigid social hierarchy. Nonetheless, I sometimes fear that assuring kids they can “be anything or anyone they want” is a step too far.

Thirty years ago, we worried that teenagers were abandoning Stem subjects in order to follow “easier” courses en route to highly paid jobs in finance and a yuppy lifestyle. Nowadays we’ve become so messianic about Stem (coining the term rather successfully in that quest, not least when you see how girls are finally turning to physics) that languages and the arts are now in near-meltdown.

I don’t believe anyone’s actually saying: “If you’re ambitious, you must do maths and other (allegedly) hard subjects,” yet that’s the message aspirational young people seem to receive. The creation of subject hierarchies by silly ideas, like the Russell Group universities’ list of “facilitating subjects” and Michael Gove’s painfully arbitrary and utilitarian EBacc, haven’t helped.

But the rush away from “creative” (forgive the over-simple label) subjects to Stem, and the continuing failure of vocational pathways to win widespread esteem, appear to be fuelled by something unspoken and indefinable, yet omnipresent in education’s bloodstream.

A perfect storm of pressure

Constantly urged to set their sights high, ambitious students need excellent GCSEs so that they can go on to tackle those tough A levels and be in contention for university offers, which will in turn demand stratospheric grades. Result: a perfect storm of pressure – even before taking into account the ways in which the government leans on schools.

Now four-fifths of teachers and pupils alike believe that an overemphasis on exams is putting wellbeing at risk. If that isn’t a wake-up call and a demand for serious review and change, I don’t know what is.

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets @bernardtrafford

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