On 10th October, the subject of mental health was once again front-page news due to frenzied governmental activity marking World Mental Health Day. Teresa May, in a speech at Downing Street, pledged to spend more money on this area. Unsurprisingly, schools were mentioned. She said in her speech,
And we need that true parity between physical and mental health, not just in our health systems but elsewhere as well – in our classrooms, our workplaces, in our communities too.
One can’t disagree with this, but any agency – government, council, school, business – cannot hope to address this issue without a deep understanding of the root causes. Why is there so much anxiety, stress and depression (to name but three areas of mental health) in our young people and in our communities?
So with a particular interest in education, here are my root causes.
- Children’s identity is at risk. They feel less rooted in groups, communities and families. Of course, this is not just children but people in general. However, children are more vulnerable because they are less likely now to grow up as part of a deep-rooted, extended family. Similarly, their involvement with groups, teams or clubs is often transient or more to do with a growing proxy consumerism on the part of parents. Many sports teams outside of school are now elitist from an early age. Children can often be made to feel failures early in life leading to a lack confidence which can become habitual. This matters as much for so-called ‘middle-class’ children as it does for those in areas of socio-economic deprivation.
- The lack of identity leads to increasing anxiety. It is compounded by the rise of social media as the habitat of communications and friendships amidst the growing individualism of the ‘Love Island’ age. The moral relativity of the nineties and noughties means that telling a young person ‘you can’t do that’, or ‘you shouldn’t do that’, is now rather unfashionable. There is a worrying lack of resilience in young people, many of whom are now becoming the parents of the future.
- There is less trust within local communities, often for good reason (think expenses, abuse scandals, bankers’ behaviour and the ‘post-truth’ acceptance). Suspicion of everyone, especially authority, is rife. Exclusion is more common than inclusion. We are therefore seeing more managers and bureaucrats in positions of authority, rather than leaders whose motives are more emotional and idealistic. However, it is impossible to deal with worries over child sexual exploitation, radicalisation, community cohesion, bullying etc without strong ethical leadership. Embracing ‘social capital’, defined by the OECD as “networks together with shared norms, values and understandings that facilitate co-operation within or among groups” is way down the priority list of many leaders.
- Rates of childhood obesity, children assessed with significant special educational needs, and those whose behaviour is very challenging, are going up. Schools’ responsibilities to safeguard families have risen. Social care and social work has been hacked back to its absolute bare bone. At the same time, parenting is increasingly a concern. Youngsters aged 2 can be more attached to an Ipad than their own parents. The demise of local authorities, coupled with a lack of investment, means that the 2014 SEND reforms, designed to improve the life chances of those with learning needs and/or disabilities, have had minimal effect.
- Concerns about child radicalisation, online bullying/abuse, child exploitation, children missing in education are staple worries, and high profile within government. All of these are linked to the points above and can only be addressed by ethically-minded, strong leaders. Not managers. Doing an hour’s Prevent Duty training will change little if leaders treat it as a box ticked. The rise of the technocrat is correlated to the rise in the above. Think of Baby Peter; all the boxes had been ticked and the visits carried out. But they’d missed the bleedin’ obvious.
- The fallout from Brexit has led to a growing consensus that immigration is a major problem and that multilateralism is wasteful. We face greater isolationism and working ‘in silos’. The learning of languages has once again been devalued. However, Britain is already a highly multi-cultural country and Brexiters are unanimous is wanting to see Britain play a greater international role. Children need to be linked to the wider world more than ever. But in schools, collaboration is often suffocated by the focus on elitism – ‘my school will be the best’ – and we hit the whole winner and loser thing again.
- As alluded to above, some leadership in schools has lost much of its heart. Evidence from a Harvard Business School study of UK headteachers suggests that a ‘surgeon’ model, based on ‘lean management’ principles has been trumpeted as the preferred style of leadership to navigate the policy outcomes of the present government. The BBC ran this story in November 2016 linking ‘surgeon’ leaders to short-term outcomes, exclusion and no sense of service to the communities surrounding the school. This style of leadership prioritises examination results above all else.
- We are in danger of seeing all educational value as directly correlated to economic success. Teachers’ hours have rocketed over recent years because they are focused on administration and evidence gathering. Measures of accountability have become so complicated that schools are employing data managers in an effort to assist teachers with the huge workload. The focus is on preparing children for examinations or other assessments, yet rarely on transformational learning work which links pupils to the challenges they will face in a complicated world. The associated focus on competition, at its worst, produces a mix of arrogant, individualistic winners on the one hand, and bemused losers on the other. The Belgian academic Paul Verhoeghe is mind-blowingly brilliant in his analysis of this point.
- There is a growing dearth of good teachers. Anecdotally, it would appear that those at the start of their careers are looking to the rest of the world for a possible escape, whilst those of the end of their careers are staggering towards a retirement. Not only do we risk a major shortfall in school leaders but we may do with classroom teachers. We all remember that teacher who ‘had time for us’. Currently, they’ve hardly got time to go to the toilet.
Shortly, I will post my response as to how a school might confront these challenges in its curriculum design.