Ultimately, exam-factory schooling is responsible for the student mental health crisis

The hyper-competitive school environment perpetuates a vicious cycle for pupils, argues the government's former mental health tsar

Natasha Devon

Policy to blame

As an educator on mental health, body image, gender equality and LGBTQ+ awareness, my work is led almost exclusively by pupil and staff feedback. I visit an average of three schools per week throughout the UK (and occasionally beyond) delivering talks and conducting focus groups with teenagers and their teachers. I then consult with experts to create lesson plans based on interest and concern arising out of my research.

As such, I’m in the fairly unique position of being able to detect patterns in the experiences and attitudes which occur within various school walls. When I first began doing this job more than a decade ago, body image issues and eating disorders were identified as the most prevalent mental health concerns amongst the 14- to 18-year-olds I surveyed. Five years later, while body image still ranked high on the agenda, self-harm was considered the most pressing and fastest growing mental health problem.

Today, parents and teachers often cite technology (and in particular social media) as their biggest worry for young people, but teenagers themselves report a different story. There’s an exercise I do in some of my classes where I draw a metaphorical stress container on the board and ask pupils to tell me what sorts of things might be filling the container, for someone their age. I then ask them to rank the answers they have given in order of how much space they are taking up in the container.

The responses are unequivocal: it’s workload, time management and, in particular, exam stress that teens identify as the major source of their stress.

Of course, there will be those who argue that’s because today’s young people don’t have much else to worry about. Opinion in some quarters holds that today’s teens have never had it so good, usually referring to the prevalence of shiny new technology such as the iPhone as their reasoning.

Unfortunately, possession of an iPhone cannot counteract the impact of austerity, which means more young people than ever are living in poverty, going to schools with scarce resources and spiralling class sizes, no longer able to avail themselves of the support of teaching assistants, school counsellors and educational psychologists. Their parents often work ridiculously long hours, meaning diminished quality family time. For those with diagnosable mental health issues, stretched-to-capacity CAMHS are often forced to turn them away. For those with difficult domestic situations, social services have also been cut.

Those subjects widely recognised to have value in building confidence, self-esteem and maintaining good mental health – namely, sport, art, music and drama – have also been cut in the state sector. Under the Conservative drive to improve standards, even English, which can provide crucial therapeutic value by allowing young people to explore emotions through character, or get difficult thoughts out of their heads in the form of creative writing, is becoming more about grammar and being able to identify and define a split infinitive.

And the constant tide of anxiety that underlines all of this is pressure over exams – the hour or two at which everything about the academic year increasingly points. It isn’t necessarily the exams themselves, although these can, of course, be stressful, it's more what exams and grades represent. In an uber-competitive culture, grades are another way to measure yourself against peers and strive for all-important success in the hope it will inoculate you against an increasingly harsh and unpalatable environment. None of that might seem harmful, or indeed new on the surface of it. However, it plays into some of the more toxic aspects of the culture in which pupils find themselves.

Dr Thomas Curran is a global expert on perfectionism (his recent TED talk is most definitely worth a watch). His research shows the higher a young person scores on a perfectionism scale, the more vulnerable they are to mental health issues. He believes a society that seeks to persuade children aggressively that they must fix themselves through consumption and to never be content with what they have is the major driving force behind spiralling levels of perfectionism in young people.

Perfectionism is often used interchangeably with trying hard. But it actually indicates being obsessively concerned with others’ expectations of you, having low self-worth that is temporarily soothed by overworking and being reticent to participate in activities in which one suspects one won’t excel.

From a learning point of view, not only does the avoidance of certain subjects make perfectionism anathema, but stress and overworking have been shown, over the long term, to impede cognitive ability and negatively affect information recall.

So, we have a situation where many pupils’ fear of failure in a hyper-competitive environment not only causes stress which potentially worsens their mental health but also interferes with their academic performance, creating a vicious cycle.

Of course, social media has a role to play in this, since it encourages us to compare our lived reality with other people’s carefully curated highlights reel and places young people in particular in a terrifying global hierarchy, but I’d argue it’s a catalyst as opposed to a cause.

What I often hear on the ground are parents placing the blame for academic pressure on teachers, teachers on parents, while young people insist it's self-perpetuating. Yet the evidence points to it being a cultural issue – self-critical inner rhetoric and crippling fear of failure which we all internalise from the moment we are exposed to rampantly capitalist messages and an exam-factory style education system.

In a school context, the issues go beyond leadership to the very top – policy caused this mess and changes in policy alone can fix it.

Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets @_NatashaDevon

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