'Dumped at the gates’

Written by: Paul Whiteman | Published:
Paul Whiteman, General secretary, National Association of Head Teachers

Let’s just take a moment to consider the tortuous world of today’s teenage learner...

Being a teenager is hard; the raging hormones, constantly checking what you look like in shop windows, the fear of “just not fitting in”, and the tortuous struggle for identity.

To make matters worse, these are the years when the foundation for your future is laid down and the pressure is on to perform in important exams.

We probably all remember with a wince the wide range of swirling emotions and difficult issues we experienced at this vulnerable time.

But we lived in a time when schools were under little or no pressure to ensure we moping teenagers were progressing. It was a time when sixth forms were the only alternatives to employment or the youth training scheme.

When we went to university, there were no fees to pay, and for many of us, a full grant was available. Building up debt from college usually meant owing no more than a couple of thousand pounds, and that seemed bad enough.

Fast forward to 2018 and teenagers have been under exam pressure since year 5. Students come to secondary school already anxious about how they will perform.

At the same time, there are fewer opportunities after school for decently paid employment, less chance to buy a house and a debt of astronomical levels for going to university. Over the last few years, we have also had new examinations that are designed to be more challenging.

And today’s teenagers also have to deal with social media. Now, being dumped at the gates generally means your partner reclassifies themselves as “single” and thousands of people LMAO (laughing my arse off) at you publicly.

There are the horrible comments about your posts, your pictures and, what you consider to be, your life. Then you have the “humblebraggers” who post about how wonderful their life is and, by default, remind you how bad yours is.

The way they connect is harmful. SmartPhones damage your mental wellbeing (Mental Health Foundation, 2016).

Just look what happens when you search “social media and...” online...

Fathoming the human brain can sometimes feel as if we are trying to capture the wind or clouds – how much more so with the cyclones that rage inside an adolescent mind?

In the midst of this maelstrom sits school. For school leaders, the question of how to approach these issues can mean the difference between collapse and success – both for our teenagers and for a school’s results. We can help students to gain confidence and self-reliance by creating a curriculum that gives these issues the time and attention they need.

Recent research conducted by NAHT showed that 91 per cent of school leaders believe PSHE should be taught in regular timetabled lessons in their school.

At the same time though, just under half said that PSHE and RSE (relationships and sex education) do not have the same status as other subjects – but more than 90 per cent thought that they should.

PSHE needs to be made statutory – for all pupils in all schools – to the same timescales which have been set for RSE (which is to become statutory from September 2019).

This will help prepare young people for the challenges they will encounter in their adult lives and the current challenges they face beyond the school gates.

And finally, when we find ourselves becoming exasperated or perplexed by the teenagers in our care, we need to cast our minds back and draw on our empathy.

We need to think deeply about what it is like to be going through those teenage years, remembering our own experiences and what helped us come through; often it was that head or certain teacher, showing us that they understood, who made the difference.

  • Paul Whiteman is general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers.


Social media and young people’s mental health, Mental Health Foundation, May 2016: http://bit.ly/2zkueqA


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