Mental health threatened by continuous drive to 'raise standards'

Written by: Phil Denton | Published:
Absolutely spot on. I often ask children in Year 5 if they're looking forward to being in Year 6 ...

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Everyone, quite rightly, is talking about the importance of student and staff mental health – but our drive to continually raise academic standards is putting good mental health in danger, says Phil Denton

In a recent tweet I saw education secretary Nicky Morgan raising the issue of poor mental health among our children. As a teacher and a school leader, I echo the concerns and applaud all efforts to raise awareness of this growing issue.
However, I fear that many of the actions of political leaders in our education system could be adding to mental health problems – if not helping to cause them in the first place.

In my own family, this issue has been brought to bear as I came home one evening to hear that my son had become very upset during his weekly spelling test. These tests, while not being new, are now more challenging for students – in line with the “raising standards” agenda.

My wife shared with me two other stories of children becoming anxious and upset about these tests. I should add at this point that my son is five-years-old.

The pace at which these more challenging tests have been implemented has side-effects. Not least, I believe, this will have a significant impact upon the wellbeing of students who cannot keep up with the relentless pace.

Put yourself in the position of a five-year-old who is struggling to keep in line with “raised standards” and faces a seemingly infinite educational game of catch-up. Add to this the reduction in subjects that students may have previously found success in because schools need to or are forced to invest more time and effort in subjects that are considered academically rigorous and which are counted as more important.

Without any signs of the situation getting better, are we not building up to a mental health disaster within our schools?

As a participant on the Future Leaders programme, I subscribe to the notion that schools should be vehicles for positive change for students and communities. We should not have a country where a child’s circumstances at birth should dictate their entire lives. We should be raising expectations for our youngsters and we should be giving them the hope of a bright future.

However, we must also remember the child in all of this. The child, whether they be five or 15, should be our sole concern and not the possible negative impact that they may have on whole-school outcomes.

I feel very lucky to work in a school where I believe the balance is right. At St Edmund Arrowsmith, the curriculum offers five distinctive pathways that are open to all students. These pathways offer combinations of academic and vocational courses. In addition, beyond the classroom, the school is true to its Catholic values and what always impresses me is the individual knowledge staff have of each and every student. This, to be fair, is also the case at my son’s school where the individual care he gets is heart-warming and tremendously beneficial.

However, I am fully aware that this is not the case in every school, particularly schools where short-term fixes are brought in by short-term leaders. The cost of this is often in the limited choices that students have and the opportunities they are losing for a holistic education.

I do not blame schools that have to refine the totality of the education they offer, they are simply responding to the latest government directives and trying to keep their heads above the choppy waters. Tight budgets do not help either.
It is at times like these that we need brave leaders who are willing to do what is right for the students we serve. We need the expertise from great organisations, such as the mental health charity Place2Be and others – they need to be supported and funded in order to give our students support where it is needed.

We also need to look after our staff to ensure that their mental health is in order so that they can be in a position to support the daily mental health of students in the classroom.

Absolutely spot on. I often ask children in Year 5 if they're looking forward to being in Year 6 next year. Invariably no, they are stressed, worried and scared. Of what, I ask? Failing. They're 9 and 10 years old.
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