• Lee Sims

We need to talk about education.....

The Guardian lead with the headline this morning 'Teachers buckling under strain of pupils' anxiety and depression' and having recently spent 4 and a half years working in a secondary school, I can assure you that probably is a mild understatement.

I've been in a fortunate position, having spent that time helping where I could and where resources allowed, dealing with the mental health issues of secondary school students. From listening to them, whether they explicitly stated it or not, it's clear the education system is broken. Broken on both a government policy level and also more than likely in most state schools.

Let us start with the fact that as a nation, we decide how much progress an adolescent has made in their 5 years in secondary education is through exams. Or memory tests as I prefer to refer to them. I was thinking about this recently, but how many professions can you think of that require you to remember things under the sort of time pressure that you are expected to remember things in a maths exam? After thinking about it, I could name two. A surgeon or a lawyer. There might be more, but they don't immediately spring to mind.

So what purpose do they really serve? Why can't we assess students using coursework only, which would allow for more creative, enjoyable and practical work? A student, probably from Year 6 onwards, gets bombarded with a series of memory tests, each seemingly feeling more important than the one before. I wonder if anyone has actually counted how many assessments a student has taken from the time they hit Year 6 until the time they complete their GCSE's. It must be over 100. I have a son in Year 6 who is already displaying early signs of anxiety as he is presented with yet another assessment.

Forgetting the practicality of these memory tests for a minute, why has the government not considered what the effect of these constant assessments along with constant reminders that GCSE's are the most important things ever are having on our next generation? It creates a sense of anxiety, depression, suicidal feelings, self-harm and stress amongst others. By the time an individual reaches the age of 16, one of the main markers they have about how they fit in the world is the results of some over inflated memory tests. No wonder they spend so much time feeling wholly inadequate, because the system does nothing to promote individuality or make children anything other than a statistic.

Maybe, just maybe, if those statistics weren't so important, teachers wouldn't spend so much time worrying about their job security and actually teach students something enjoyable and meaningful as opposed to content designed to improve an already inflated pass rate. I spent time in the counselling room trying to help these students understand that these exams are just a gateway to the next step of the journey and as long as they get on the college course they want, does it really matter they didn't get a grade 9 in everything?

But any government changes would be meaningless without their being enough money to staff a secondary school properly. The school I just left had an inadequate leadership team, a small pastoral and SEND provision and spent far too much time worrying about whether students write in blue or black pen or whether those black shoes were polishable.

In a secondary school the balance between teaching and pastoral staff needs to be completely addressed. There needs to be more people trained and able to deal with these increasing mental health issues. A student can revise all they need, but one anxiety attack in an exam threatens to ruin everything they've worked for. A happy student will work harder, so why aren't we concentrating on this?

The last point I want to make is that does it really matter whether a student dyes their hair red, has colourful nails or has more than one ear piercing? I don't think it does. It promotes individuality and maybe would help balance those feelings of inadequacy felt my most students. We aren't all the same, perhaps we should stopping assuming we should look and behave the same.

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