If you’ve been working in education for a while, you’ve almost certainly come across some mental health challenges. No, I don’t mean your own! Although the pressure educators face is closely linked to what I want to talk about, I’d really like to focus here on the mental well-being of our learners.

If we’re considering educating and developing the whole learner, we can’t help but contemplate their mental health. We might be considering both developing mental ‘toughness’ whilst trying to reduce the impact of the pressure education can bring. The latter is often of particular concern at this time of year and I’m sure many of you are feeling it!

I’d like us to think about that pressure that leaders, teachers and learners share to achieve qualification success. Pressure can be positive, but there is no doubt in my mind that there is a lot of negative pressure in education right now.   The pressure to achieve outcomes, to push our learners towards qualification success, is relentless. And you have to ask – at what cost to their mental well-being?

Before we even think about the cost I want to ask why we relentlessly pursue this thing we call success in education? What is it really? Being able to remember a load of stuff at one particular point in your life and successfully write it all down in time? We work in a system that values the qualification over and above the many spectacular experiences that learning brings. We often focus much more on the pursuit of proof of knowledge rather than the learning itself. How healthy is this?

The other disturbing thing we do in our education system is use these qualifications as if they accurately measure future potential. But of course, these single, crude measures fall very short. That beautiful insightful quote of Einstein comes to mind: ‘Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.’

Why do we pile on this unnecessary pressure, selling our learners this false truth: that these qualifications are vital for their future success? Useful, they might be, but vital? I don’t think so.

You might argue that life is full of pressure and we need to prepare our young people for that. Of course we do, but there are ways! It’s almost as if we think that because ‘adult life’ is full of pressure we need to accustom our learners to these same pressures? But is this what we really want for them? I wonder if we are too busy trying to help them tackle the ‘symptoms’ of life as we experience it rather than trying to find the ‘cure’. We all need that cure.

Just think about this comparison we might make to adult lives, and the cure we need for these lives affected by negative stress. Are we not being hypocritical? Why is it that we talk as adults about the importance of work / life balance, yet during holidays we send our children an electronic ‘pile’ of mock papers so big to complete that if they did them all they would have no holiday at all? Can we not teach them the benefits of letting go a little?

Thinking about my 16 year old daughter currently completing her GCSEs, I don’t fear exam failure for her at all. My worry for her and her peers is about the impact of this unnecessary pressure on their mental well –being. In particular, I wonder if we might be setting up patterns of anxiety that could stay with them.   I don’t want them to have to feel this kind of forced upon, negative, unnecessary, and frankly, oppressive pressure.

I am far more interested in our learners’ mental health, and their emotional and social well being to care too much about their ability to reach predicted or aspirational grades. Thinking of my daughter, I’m much more invested in her growth as a human being, able to navigate her way through life happily and healthily whilst being kind to others. I am much more concerned about her resilience, her problem solving ability, her interpersonal skills, her confidence.

As I’ve watched so many of her dance friends leave their Saturday classes in order to focus harder on their GCSEs, I feel terribly sad. I wonder why they are either forced to or feel they should give up what they love. There’s a horrible irony here too of giving up the thing that combats and reduces the impact of negative stress solely because of the stress they are under. It’s a scary pattern that often we take into adult life, much to our detriment.

You know what I wish? I wish that education could be more honest with my daughter and her peers. I wish that educators, with less pressure to get those results, could say, ‘you know what, these exam results can be useful, but what we learn and how we do it is much more important. Let’s enjoy learning!’ Whilst at it, I wish they could let them know that these exams won’t tell them how capable they will be in the future and that they are a pretty rubbish indicator of their future success.

So, as changing the education system and it’s focus on exam success is a bigger job (but one that needs tackling for sure), could we perhaps just be honest with our learners? Could we help them see a world of possibilities, and understand they don’t need to always conform? Could we let them know there are much more important aspects of themselves to develop than being able to remember a load of facts that, lets face it, they may never need to use again? Could we help them focus on enjoying learning? Could we let go of fear of collective ‘success rates’ and have faith in individual learners finding their way? Could we help build them up so they have faith in themselves and their futures? Could we be that brave?

Deborah McVey, Managing Director, Deborah McVey Ltd

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