The mental health price of academic focus

I am worried about the education we provide to the children in this country. I am worried because two of my daughters are going through it already and I don’t like what I see. I am worried because of my own negative experiences of secondary education. And I am worried because of the apathy some children experience towards their education.

I feel that there are potentially major psychological implications for children as they are growing into adults. And that has potential implications for the lives that they lead once they become adults.

My two eldest daughters attend a local primary school and are just approaching their first big educational hurdle – Year 2 SATS. As they have gone through their infant schooling, I have seen how the changing emphasis from the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) curriculum to the Key Stage 1 curriculum, has sucked any joy from school and learning, leading to problems.

They have supposedly ‘optional’ homework and reading that eats up precious time in the evenings and weekends for family activities. The orientation of the lessons is highly focused on literacy and numeracy. And now they are going to be formally tested. Of course these are the things that the school is judged upon; by parents, potential parents, Ofsted, and the community as a whole.

The UK sends its children into formal education much earlier than most other European countries, theoretically in the search for academic results. But actually in those countries where that formal education is delayed in lieu of learning through play, better long term academic results are achieved. Countries such as Norway and Sweden. Early formal education is misguided logic.

Later educating countries also happen to have the higher levels of happiness in the international index. Is there any causal relationship between education and happiness? I have to wonder. Does the pursuit of academic achievement neglect the social and emotional development that is key to eventually leading happy and fulfilled lives?

My experiences of secondary school also influence my thoughts. I went to a very academic, secondary school and there was a huge amount of competition between all the pupils. Results were highly prized and there was very little attention paid to the value of other activities and skills. Results may be part of what people build their lives on, but they are not everything.

I dragged myself through the last bit of secondary school with a dose of (undiagnosed) depression. I achieved good A-level results, but I didn’t translate them into a positive, proactive life that belonged to me. That has come after recovery, counselling and self-learning. High achieving children, under pressure, are at higher risk of mental health issues, such as depression and eating disorders.

And on the other side of the equation are the disillusioned children for whom education is something to hate and attempt to escape, with school truancy and apathy towards education and participation in society, because they are not engaged with their learning. Either way we are creating long term problems of detached people.

What is education supposed to be for our children? Too much emphasis seems to be put on to the achievement of results and the search for ‘success’. We need to change from making judgements based on results.

In my mind success is the ability to support your living, the ability to self-determine your direction, having satisfaction from how you live your life, being engaged with your community. Being able to deal with the problems that life throws at you. These are extremely hard to measure and only proven after the completion of education rather than during it.

I recently watched a discussion about measurable, learnable wellbeing skills hosted by Richard Davidson from the Centre for Healthy Minds that was live streamed. Resilience and attention, empathy and kindness, mindfulness and self-awareness, creativity and curiosity. These are the positive skills that I want my children to learn, that I would hope can help them live successful lives.

Obviously school is not the only place that this can or should be provided, but it is the most consistent resource for this across the country. I do what I can at home, I hope. But education needs to stop focusing so myopically on academic results and start helping children learn wellbeing skills to avoid negative mental health impacts that can affect children for the rest of their lives.

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. maddy@writingbubble says:

    Yes, yes and yes. I agree totally. My middle son is also year two and I was genuinely shocked to see the mock Sats papers his teachers gave us to look at. They were so technical and required reading, writing and reasoning abilities that I think many six year olds will struggle with. His teachers agreed. I think education is so important but so is having fun. Learning through play can set up good relationships with learning that last the rest of their lives. I’m really concerned that loads of kids will be put off education by being forced to do tests that are too difficult and take them feel inadequate, or that even if they an manage the tests, the type of schooling required to enable them to pass them, makes education dull. Kids need to fall in love with reading and writing by being read great books and letting their imaginations run wild, not by learning what the technical name for a type of grammatical utterance is. It’s just wrong. Great post, Alice. xx

    1. I know, those papers are crazy right!?! My girls are young for the year, still only 6 and I just don’t think it matters, all this nonsense. I think verbal skills and emotional awareness are much better indicators of future ‘success’ anyway. Sometimes I don’t understand what my girls do in class, I never learned what they are learning. You are right creativity and play is how they learn ‘real life’. Xx

  2. Clair says:

    You really captured my own feelings about the current state of education. My son is year 1 and I dread next years SATS. At a recent parents evening the tone was so negative, with a list of what was required from home so that the school could demonstrate progress and ‘tick boxes’. Despite the fact that my son is progressing nicely and is very happy at school this was lost in the graphs and targets. I came away from the meeting feeling sad that my son has to go through such a negative education system. I fear for the children who are already struggling at the tender age 5. Like you I believe that there is much more to school and education then literacy and numeracy. I try to balance school with a home life that allows my son to relax and to understand that learning and life is about so much more.

    1. It is sad isn’t it? I don’t think there are many teachers who support what is going on in education, sadly it’s the result endless of political shuffling. I think that balance is very important and home is the only place to counteract the damage of focussing on academic results. Thanks for reading. X

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