I’m rarely driven to the point of invective, but recently I’ve read about two pieces of bewildering Government policy the logic of which, no matter how hard I try, I’m unable to rationalise.
Worse, I’m genuinely worried that together they could, If I’ve interpreted them correctly, produce the most emotionally damaged generation of people we’ve ever seen.
Before we get to the second policy that’s troubling me, let’s just dwell on that, for a moment. Consider the process that has led the Government to that position. Consider the number of people who must have been involved in the process of constructing the financial and political argument so compelling that the Cabinet Office felt bound to adopt it. Consider what the implications of that are.
It means the Government has accepted there is evidence that the exam structure it and previous Governments have implemented is actively damaging the mental health of our children. There’s no wriggle room here, no other reality. The only reason to introduce mental health training is because there is a mental health problem.
So let’s follow that breadcrumb trail. If the Government has accepted there is already a mental health issue related to the way this country approaches school exams, then it follows that someone, somewhere (and probably a good number of someones) has asked themselves whether the best solution is to counsel the children or to change an exam system which is putting appalling, unnecessary and unacceptable pressure on the majority of children (and their parents).
And the conclusion they’ve reached is that the best thing would be to keep the pressure ratcheted up and instead try to give the kids some coping tools in the hope they might not suffer a complete breakdown before they get to the age of 18.
Am I wrong to think this is the most monumentally ill-conceived, ill-advised and ill-considered strategy in the history of modern education? To call it stupid would surely be too kind.
At present, children at primary school take Statutory Assessment Tests (SATs) at the ages of 7 and 11. They then subjected to a battery of tests and exams at secondary school which include end of year tests, GCSE and A Level mocks along with the GCSEs and A Levels themselves.
SATs, GCSEs and A Levels all form the bulk of the scoring that dictates where in the league tables any given school sits. Which means that these exams are no longer just a test of a child’s ability, but also a test of a school’s ability to deliver effective teaching. Where you sit in the league table also determines the degree to which a school can expand academically and physically and so these exams are also linked to income streams.
The net result? An academic environment in which head teachers and teachers are fundamentally terrified to fail. And as the pressure cascades to on-the-ground teaching staff from the DofE via Ofsted, through local education authorities, governing bodies and head teachers, so it grows to often intolerable levels.
Children crack at the age of 10 and 11 because they’re told over and over that they must not, under any circumstance, fail; parents crack because their children become shadows of the bright, happy individuals they once were before they entered our broken education system. Children aged between 15 and 18 crack because they’re told there is no future in failure.
Schools have become competitive exam factories rather than nurturing, guiding, neighbourhood establishments. Rather than teaching children how to deal with more and more competitive pressure surely the role of school education needs to be reconsidered with the mental health of children being the main consideration. Education in Britain has moved more and more towards being a consumer product rather than a means of enabling children to realise their ability and reach an independent functioning adulthood. School has become a fuller and fuller focus on academic achievement. It has moved further towards hot housing the imparting of information in order to pass the next test rather than fostering curiosity, developing emotional IQ and gaining knowledge towards some kind of wisdom to help you through life
The number of children seeking counselling from people like me is rocketing. Numbers have never been so high. And yet the pressure continues to be reinvented and reapplied with no let-up.
It’s a monstrous process. And for what?
That brings me nicely to the second report of planned Government policy which, especially when considered in the context of the above, would almost be funny if it weren’t so horribly calculating and sinister.
The Universities minister (yes, there is such a thing), Jo Johnson has announced that the Government is to crack down on the number of first class degrees awarded by universities.
Mr Johnson – who has a first class honours degree from Oxford – says that what he describes as ‘degree inflation’ will be tackled in order to protect ‘the long-term value and currency of the degrees’.
The reason for this? Well, those pesky universities populated by students whose academic ability and mental resilience have been tested to (and often beyond) breaking point are just handing out too many of them.
So what does tackling ‘degree inflation’ mean in practice? Well, this is where we find ourselves back in Whitehall la-la land. One measure currently under consideration by the Office for Students, the regulatory body established recently to look into such things, is to introduce a quota system.
So, let’s get this straight. Universities are handing out too many top-class degrees and the way to tackle that is to only allow them to give out a certain number. I’m not sure about you, but I don’t think I could come up with a more worryingly arbitrary system if I tried.
What that means in practice is that if you find yourself in a cohort of very talented students, you may deserve a first class degree but you won’t get one because they’ve run out. So presumably you’ll get a 2:1 instead?
In what sort of twisted world is that even vaguely acceptable?
Which brings me back to my original point. I’m worried about these two things because they demonstrate that far from being willing to tackle mental health in young people by making the right policy decisions, the Government is actually promoting the decline of mental wellbeing in the youngest generation by trying paper over a gaping chasm with a sticking plaster.
That is bad enough. But now our children’s mental health is being put at risk for no great reason, because even the small incentive of achieving the best degree possible (and let me say now that a good degree will never be a fair exchange for good mental health) is in danger of being taken away from them.
We really need to put a stop to this nonsense and the damage it is doing to children and young adults.