Former preparatory school Headmaster Peter Tait has written in the Telegraph that ‘schools are largely to blame for rising mental health issues’ in young people.
Whether you agree with this, or believe it to be a combination of more complex social factors, it is not difficult to understand the point he is making. With maintained schools having the threat of published league tables and many independent schools being judged on the success of common entrance results or GSCE’s, it could be said that livelihoods depend on these factors.
Before entering education I was involved in elite swimming coaching and often a reason given for a ‘national failure’ at a senior level was that the coaching at a young age focused on winning rather than age appropriate development. It is not just swimming, take a visit to a Sunday morning football match for under 12’s and see if the main message from the coaches and parents on the side is winning, or a positive encouragement to play football in the right way. As Mr Tait suggests in his article, it is not the desire to win or be competitive that is the issue in sport or education, but the fear and anxiety that occurs when anything other than ‘winning’ occurs.
For many independent school pupils and parents, that line between success and failure is evident during the time of entrance tests or public exams. If the sole aim of the assessment is for a pupil to get into a particular school or gain a particular grade, anything other than that specific result could be seen as failure by the child, or a failure of the school to do their job.
Many Prep school websites lead with long lists of Common Entrance scholarship successes; it’s easy to measure and gives the impression of a successful school to the prospective parent. It is much harder to celebrate and quantify the school that excels in tackling the anxieties children face and promotes pupil wellbeing above all else.
Whilst Bedales Prep cannot change many of the external factors that Peter Tait suggests are affecting young people, such as social media and the cost of university tuition fees, we are making a commitment that we know will make a difference here. The school has employed trained counsellors for a number of years and they are fully embedded in the culture of the school and are well used by many pupils and staff. In addition, staff will now receive mandatory training on mental health, delivered in the same way schools have to provide child protection training, to ensure that the issue isn’t seen as a passing fad or a one-off INSET event. We do not do Common Entrance, nor have a curriculum of rigorous testing, and the Bedales approach to learning has always been proudly different, with pupils challenged to become more independent learners.
Alongside this, parents clearly have a role to play as well. When visiting prospective schools, looking beyond the headline exam success and really scrutinising their approach to mental health and wellbeing would be a start. Evidence suggests that a young person’s self-esteem, self-confidence and having a strong feeling of being understood are crucial in helping to prevent mental health issues arising. If schools are expected, and indeed challenged to evidence this aspect of education more than exam results and scholarships, we would certainly be doing our part in tackling this worrying trend.
By Nick Robinson, Deputy Head, Pastoral and Head of Blocks, Mental Health first aider