The pressure on our children is too much

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With research showing the devastating pressure that young people are facing as they enter the workplace, Pete Henshaw argues that both our education system and wider society places too much importance on success at all costs.

New research has illustrated the devastating pressure that young people are facing as they seek to enter the workplace.

The Prince’s Trust Macquarie Youth Index has found that many long-term unemployed young people – those aged 16 to 25 – suffer from serious mental health issues. A third have contemplated suicide, a quarter have self-harmed, while one in four cope with things like panic attacks and feelings of self-loathing. One in 10 say they have “nothing to live for”.

The report also finds a link between poverty and mental health, with young people who grow up in poverty more likely to experience the problems above.

These are serious findings that once again raise the question of how we prepare and support our young people for life after education.

Of 2,161 young people involved in the Prince’s Trust research, 281 were NEET – not in education, employment or training – with 166 of these having been unemployed for six months or more (there are currently 950,000 or so young people who are unemployed).

So what is the problem? Why are those struggling to find work so vulnerable to mental health issues? For me, the issue can be traced back to what I believe has been an increasing problem for the past 10 years, if not longer.

I refer to the enormous pressure that society now places on young people and the toll that our 24/7, ambitious, money-driven lifestyle and culture takes.

I believe we are in danger of placing too high expectations on young people (and at increasingly younger ages). Our education system has eroded much of our children’s actual childhood as we test and examine them to the extreme at all ages. Everything is geared towards the importance of success, and this is weighted heavily towards academic success.

And it is this huge pressure, this huge ambition that we foist upon every child that actively serves to damage the wellbeing of those who struggle to “make the grade” (a grade which is so often arbitrarily set).

Add to this wider societal issues, including our obsession with money, material possessions and status; parental/societal pressure to be driven and ambitious; our culture of putting our job of work above all other things in our life, and the stakes have become so high that “failure” is now seen as unacceptable – a fact that is underlined for children from an early age.

This situation certainly is not helped by other factors. For example, at a time of recession when careers advice is so important, the system has been destroyed by funding cuts and schools have been left to pick up the pieces. We need definitive action from ministers, including additional funding for schools to help them offer full, effective and tailored careers advice and employability skills training. We also need to support more schemes to give disadvantaged young people these skills, such as the Prince’s Trust Get Started courses.

More widely, we could also make a big difference just by scrapping school league tables, easing the testing burden on our young people, and giving schools the real freedom to offer each child a tailored curriculum to suit their talents.

But there is more that must happen. As a society I believe that we need to tone down our focus on ambition and success at all costs. We need to realise the damage that our 24/7 working culture is having on our nation’s wellbeing. We need to change the message of “failure is not an option”, which I fear is becoming inherent in our education system. There will always be students who struggle to meet the goals we set for them, the real challenge is how we react and support them when this happens.

I for one would take happiness, mental wellbeing and confidence/resilience over ambition or a material notion of success any day. The goal of our education system must be to ensure all our young people are happy, are mentally prepared for the challenges of modern life, and are supported to make the most of their talents, whatever they may be.


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