What price “progress”?

Spoiler alert: there’s no humour in this post.

This morning, my eleven-year old daughter was in tears as she prepared to go to school (which has never happened before). Like many year 6 children she is anxious to do her best, and frightened of being made to repeat the tests (a peculiar proposal for the government to put forward if the tests really are about measuring the system not the pupils, as Nick Gibb tried to suggest last week). She is at a great school, with encouraging and experienced teachers who, I am very confident, will do their utmost to make the week as relaxed as possible.  But that won’t take away the essential problem – that she, her friends and her teachers are being used by government as pawns to test the  UK system against a few select international competitors. Which isn’t a very healthy position for any of the individuals concerned.

There is, of course, a big difference between feeling temporarily stressed and having a diagnosed mental health problem, but the two can be related, and it made me think about the potential for schools (as agents for education policy and independently of it) to contribute both positively and negatively to children’s mental health and wellbeing.

Over the last five years, there has been a significant increase in the numbers of children and adolescents with mental health problems, and a consequent increase in referrals to specialist services, resulting in frustration and anxiety for young people and their parents who need help at the point of referral, not several months down the line. (For more information see for example this report by Centre Forum.) To try and cope with the rising demand on Child & Mental Health Services (CAMHS), government identified £1.25 billion for ‘transforming’ CAMHS services so that by 2020 they are more accessible, more responsive and better able to cope with rising demand.

That might sound like a lot of money, but once you spread the money over five years and then start costing out services across the country, it’s still going to be a huge challenge for local services to meet the rising need. And part of that rise is the government’s own fault.

Just as you don’t have search far for a story about a young person struggling to access the counselling or other mental health help they need,  you don’t have to look far for stories about the emotional and psychological impact on pupils of the government’s policies for increasing school test results. Here’s one, for example, on the Let Our Kids be Kids site.

The Centre Forum report suggests that 3 pupils in every class need mental health services or at the very least some additional support. So in a joined-up system you might think that schools would be supported to link up with local mental health services (many schools in the past have had CAMHS workers embedded in schools which has worked well for all concerned), or would have counselling provision that can link up with those services. You might also expect that local authorities or academy trusts would be required to monitor and check that such support is in place. But no. Some schools have pupil wellbeing firmly on their agenda, provide support in-house and make such links as far as is possible given the constraints on services (I’m pleased to say my son’s school, Thomas Gainsborough, held a parents information event recently following on from PSHE days on emotional wellbeing and mental health). But other schools don’t, because they are too fearful of failing to comply with the government requirement that test results go up.   And fear is not a positive motivator.

Schools with results above the required level have a bit of breathing space (though I grant you, it may not feel like it). Schools with falling results  – or even results which stay fairly constant – have no room whatsoever. And the consequence? Often, sadly, a relentless focus on tests and testing at the exclusion of creative arts, sporting activities – and crucially, support services for pupils who are struggling. And the academy system just makes this worse. The lack of accountability of academies to parents and local authorities increases the ‘freedom’ of academies to impose actions which are not supported by parents, not good for pupil’s emotional or psychological wellbeing, and  even not likely to improve outcomes (i.e. don’t follow the evidence-base). And sadly there are academies and academy chains out there that seem hell-bent on driving through mechanistic measures to improve results without consideration of the impact on pupil wellbeing or of the ramifications of losing parent support for the school’s actions. An example I heard recently really brought this home.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a campaign meeting about the Education White Paper, and heard a parent speak with clarity and passion about changes imposed in her daughters (secondary) school since a recent downturn in GCSE exam results.  Whilst still officially a ‘Good with outstanding features’ school (that is, it hasn’t had an Ofsted visit since results went down), the school now appears to be in panic mode, and its actions don’t, at least on the face of it, appear likely to improve either the exam results or the wellbeing of pupils. It has instigated some very victorian practices such as making all year groups (yes even the 15 year olds) line up before school, and withdrawing the morning break. Another of the ‘solutions’ it has put in place is to publish pupils’ test results for each year group. So exams are no longer used to inform pupils, parents and teachers of how pupils are doing (nothing new in that, after all), but to rank pupils – and then to display that information for anyone in school to see. When challenged, the school explained that this practice was used in another academy in the same chain. They either did not or could not explain why it was supposed to be helpful in that original school, or how they expected it to work in one with a significantly more diverse intake.

I’m aware that pupils often know quite a bit about how they perform relative to their peers. But that is not at all the same as having that information bandied about publicly for all outside their immediate peer group to see – and potentially to misuse. And how public shaming (which is what it can amount to for some) is supposed to be motivational is beyond me. Instead, it’s all too easy for pupils to lose self-esteem and motivation – as the parent I heard testified, with the example of another pupil who has now left the school.

All this, whilst seeming unlikely to have a positive impact on exam results, is very likely to create demand for child and adolescent mental health services. An increasing emphasis on a school culture based on stick and no carrot, combined with a lack of time for PHSE and a failure to value constructive relationships with parents, almost certainly goes against what most schools would be wanting to achieve if they really had the freedom to act in their pupil’s best interests.

There is plenty of evidence linking increased pupil wellbeing to educational attainment (or in other words better exam results). And there’s no shortage of best practice about how to support schools to recognise young people in need of help and liaise effectively with the right services. So you might expect the government, faced with rising demand for CAMHS services, to take the opportunity in the CAMHS transformation funding to ensure that local authorities (which are responsible for these services at school level) are both required and resourced to put such services in our schools.  But instead they have cut funding to local authorities.  And I notice that wellbeing of young people doesn’t feature in the governments (very short) list of things that local authorities will remain responsible for if their White Paper gets through parliament.

It is tempting to  accuse the government of caring only about exam results and not about the wellbeing of the pupils concerned – that is, to have no capacity or interest in assessing the impact of the processes used to achieve that goal on pupils’ emotional and psychological health. But it could be more accident than design.  Either way, the government’s Department for Education appears entirely disconnected from the Department of Health. As a consequence schools in general are deprived of the support and services they need to respond to the needs of their pupils, and schools that are paralysed by the fear of exam failure are reduced to implementing draconian measures in the hope of shaming pupils to better results – and not even then held accountable for these actions to parents. Not only is all this bad for young people and their families, it will cost us all more in the long term.

One response to this post.

  1. Rescue our Schools have today put out a petition to Jeremy Hunt to get the ball rolling, available here https://www.change.org/p/jeremy-hunt-mp-secretary-of-state-for-health-it-s-time-to-monitor-our-schoolchildren-s-emotional-wellbeing Please sign and share.


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