Are risk-averse rules harming students’ mental health?

8th September 2017 at 00:00
Things aren’t what they used to be: in some ways, this could be to the detriment of today’s children, writes John Tomsett

Amanda Spielman, chief inspector of schools, recently said that teachers must stop trying “to wrap [pupils] in cotton wool”, because this leaves them ill-prepared for the challenges of later life.

Writing in The Telegraph, Spielman said that schools have to do more to “distinguish between real and imagined risk”. Ofsted will apparently train inspectors to ensure that schools are not rewarded for overbearing policies.

In many ways, Spielman is right. Things aren’t what they used to be.

I began school in the 1960s, at roughly the same time as our new head of Ofsted. My mates and I used to leave fishing lines overnight in the stream below our primary school in an illegal attempt to catch fish.

Mrs Humphreys, our Year 2 teacher, allowed us to leave the site during morning break, run down to the end of the field, climb the school fence, traverse the steep bank, crawl under the electrified barbed wire, walk through the wood full of strange toadstools, leap the stream, sprint up to the nursery lane pool through a field of cows, check our fishing lines, cross the road and amble back again.

We could have been drowned, electrocuted, trampled by a herd of cows, knocked down by a car, or even poisoned – if we had eaten the toxic toadstools. The whole time, we were teacher-less and without a parental permission letter. There wasn’t an online trips form to be seen.

'Litigation and bubblewrap'

Imagine the career-ending consequences for teachers of such apparent neglect now. Such a scenario is beyond ridiculous in the current world of increased litigation and bubblewrap.

Spielman is definitely onto something. We know that levels of depression and anxiety are on the rise among young people. Could there possibly be a connection between this and the fact that our society seems to be increasingly risk-averse?

Adults would never want to see young people endangering themselves, but learning to take manageable risks is all part of being a teenager.

In fact, according to the University of Oxford’s Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, an expert on the adolescent brain, risk-taking is actually an “important evolutionary behaviour”.

If we do not allow our pupils to manage risk, they will find it harder when it comes to facing challenges later on. I would love, à la Spielman, to adopt the advice of JD Salinger’s character Holden Caulfield: “If they fall off, they fall off.”

In many ways, this is probably the best advice around for those of us dealing with risk-taking teenagers. The trouble is that, as it stands, if you’re a teacher and you run with this advice, you’ll probably get the sack.

John Tomsett is headteacher at Huntington School in York, and a member of the Headteachers’ Roundtable. He tweets @johntomsett

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