Friday, 20 May 2016

Enough is enough.

If I hear one more comment about "raising standards" in schools I might scream. As a (previously) staunch advocate of improving teaching in our schools, of promoting excellence and raising aspirations, I'm vaulting over the fence now and saying STOP.

Enough is enough.  

The UK (and England in particular) has an unprecedented teenage mental health crisis. At least one teenager you know will be suffering from mental health issues, which will be a product of the environment in which they live. I know many - far too many. Children suffering so acutely some threaten to take their own lives. Why? Because at a desperately young age they believe they are failures - and that every door to a possible bright future is closing.

Now I'm not about to suggest that attempting to raise standards in schools is the only factor in the emotional welfare of our young people but it's a pretty big one. The student who works flat out, many hours a day and regularly attains top scores in past papers deserves to have a satisfying experience in their public exam. To be challenged yes, to be stretched but not to the limit of their human endurance. When I hear of students leaving exam halls early, or rushing to the toilets straight afterwards to be sick, sobbing in hallways and saying their "life is over" because their University place is lost to them... my blood boils. These are not kids who can't be bothered, those who struggle academically or those who are outside the system. Indeed some of these are model students with offers from Russell Group Universities and bright futures ahead of them. But all these young people are the adults of tomorrow, whom we will rely on to run this country long after we have retired. Do we really want to break them before they have got started in life?

Our young people have so much to contend with. Social lives that intrude on their every waking moment - there is no escape now with the tentacles of social media permeating into previously safe spaces. There are many, many more applicants for sixth forms, apprenticeships and university places - partly due to a rising domestic population and partly due to migration from the EU. University tuition fees which are set to rise from next September and costly living expenses. They repeatedly hear how "exams are getting easier" and "it was much harder in my day" from every form of media plus family and friends, yet no one fully appreciates the insidious impact "raising standards" is having on all our children.

My ten year old sat a reading comprehension on Dickens' Pickwick Papers this week. He's a bright kid - near top in his year at a selective school. But the first thing he said on arriving home afterwards was that he was "certainly never going to read any book like that in future".

What a tragedy. To gain a certainty that the works of Dickens (and probably similar classic authors) holds nothing for you at age ten is up there with killing off the Tooth Fairy or Father Christmas for a preschooler. You see, artificially injecting age inappropriate work several years down doesn't raise standards. It raises anxiety, raises a sense of failure, raises a real lack of confidence which permeates into other areas of life and raises the incidence of mental health problems in our children.

And you can hardly have missed the news this week that Finnish schools rank top in the world for academic achievement. Whilst scoring is always subjective and this might be questionable, they undoubtedly do well.  I wonder if you watched the videos of countless interviews with Finnish teachers, asking them what their secret was?


Sounds so twee doesn't it? Yet it's a widely accepted fact that the happy child learns fast and unhappy children rarely learn at all. In actual fact, children learn in spite of Eduction, in spite of teachers and in spite of schools. They are learning all the time and until we realise this our education system will remain stuck in the Dark Ages back to where it is currently hurtling. We can guide, enthuse, challenge and mentor young people - but the idea formal Education should be the transferral of a body of knowledge into the brain of each and every young person is so very wrong.

Children are innately curious, eager to learn and naturally enthusiastic. Many times I have written about my second son who has Autism. How he craves knowledge and once his interest is piqued he will devour information and visibly grow as a person as he learns and gains confidence. But the second you impose a requirement to learn too fast, to tackle anything he is not developmentally ready for - the anxiety kicks in, the panic ensues and he ceases to function. This is a more obvious process that all children and students go through when forced to "learn" something they are not yet ready for. And they end up learning nothing at all - because no one can learn when in an acute state of anxiety.

But what of our older students, do too many receive an A*? Have exams become easier? And should be not be aiming to have the most accomplished school leavers in the World?

There might indeed have been a time when this was the case, but I assure you nothing could be further from the truth now. The stakes have never been higher, and neither has the insurmountable mountain which must be climbed to gain a good grade. Too many young people are dropping hobbies, skills and not nurturing talents in activities which promote mental wellbeing because they are focussing solely on their school work - because the message they are hearing is that it matters above all else, to the exclusion of all else and that success is the only thing which is important. And yet the inconsistency is crippling! Deprived of any broader perspective by this false ethos, students are then robbed of any credibility or reliability in public exams. An A grade this year will not be comparable to last, to another subject, to another A level years ago. Explain that to employers and universities. This injustice of this expectation escalation is quite shocking.

So if I had one message for anyone studying for public exams this summer it is this:-
You are lucky enough that you will have many lives, many opportunities and chances that you cannot even know about yet. This is only one - one route amongst many. Yes it matters, and yes you should give it your very best shot, but don't let it define you, or limit you. It's just one path in the complex web of life and there will be others, so many others. If you went on a journey and the road was blocked, would you go home? No, you might curse then try a different way. That's all this is, a test in map reading the Atlas of Life. You only fail the test if you give up and go home.

The following websites offer advice and information for parents and young people dealing with mental health difficulties:-

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