Ask anyone with even the most limited appreciation of the arts to name ten of the most famous sculptures in history and the chances are that Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker would probably be having a fist fight with Michaelangelo’s David to be at the top of the list.
Rodin’s work, created in the late Nineteenth Century and first cast at the turn of the Twentieth, now resides at the Musee Rodin in Paris.
I mention this not because I have any specific interest in the work of Heroic Avant-Garde sculptors (don’t worry, I Googled that), but because I have a question.
In the process of creating a masterpiece, which element contributes most to the finished work? The clay or other medium (get me with my art words)? Or the artist who sculpts it?
It’s a philosophical question, which when you think about it is appropriate when we’re talking about a piece of art that has become the universal symbol of philosophy, and the most likely answer is that they’re both vital to the outcome. But pushed to choose, I’d go with the clay, because no matter how talented the sculptor, without the raw material, there is no magic.
Which brings us, in a slightly roundabout way, to the thousands of Year 6, 11 and 13 school pupils who are about to head into their SATs, GCSE and A Level exams carrying with them enough collective stress to power a large city (if it ran on stress).
Writing in the Times Educational Supplement this week, former Government adviser on mental health, Natasha Devon, observed that students are the education system’s biggest asset and have a right to protect their mental wellbeing.
Controversially, she opened her article by saying that if she were education secretary she would limit exams if not ban them entirely, because they ‘don’t give an indication of much that matters’.
This moved me to give voice to a small but spontaneous cheer, quickly followed by an involuntary fist-pump. Because as anyone who reads my articles regularly will know, I am a fierce critic of the way in which our education system plays Russian roulette with children’s mental health.
I’m not going to rehash my ongoing argument about education and mental health here, other than to reiterate my central objection that Government preoccupation through Ofsted with exam performance as a measure for success is doing very little other than compromising the mental health of children.
This is particularly ironic when you consider that though local education authorities present a veneer of choice when it comes to deciding your children’s education, the lack of available school places together with austere local admissions policies mean a great many parents are given no choice whatsoever in their children’s onward academic journey.
In reality, the kids living nearest the so-called good schools will get to go there and everyone else will be allocated a place at an ‘unpopular’ school. So, if, by virtue of the impact of policy, school performance has little influence on where your child goes – what’s the point of the league table at all?
Yet children are ridden hard by teachers to succeed. They live in constant fear of failure. Their mental health suffers. Stress, anxiety and depression are currently the unwanted companions of children facing a month of papers designed to test not how well they have learned and understood, but how well they have memorised.
Demand for NHS services designed to meet child mental health concerns is at an all time high. The Government is funding mental health awareness sessions in schools, but not additional support treatment (presumably this is so children can add to the battery of worries they already have by recognising they are mentally unwell without being able to do much about it).
My associates and I are seeing more and more children whose parents are desperately trying to find answers to mounting exam pressure. And it’s on this issue – the source of exam pressure and anxiety – that Natasha Devon and I part company in opinion.
In the TES article she writes that whilst academic anxiety has now overtaken body image and bullying as the primary cause of child mental health concerns, she agrees with research carried out by Chris Jeffrey whilst head teacher at The Grange School in North West England which suggests exam stress is often self-generated.
Putting aside the fact that the commercial imperatives that drive the independent schools sector make it a very different animal to the state system, the simple fact is that academic stress must have its source somewhere.
Broadly speaking and accepting there are inevitable exceptions that prove the rule, it’s unlikely that parents are putting extreme pressure on their kids to overachieve. Most parents are wholly accepting of their child’s best efforts as the measurement by which to benchmark their offspring’s success.
Similarly, children at SATs age and, arguably, GCSE age are not overly concerned with overachieving, either. So, the primary cause of academic performance anxiety must be coming from elsewhere within the classroom – from teachers whose own performance is inextricably linked to exam success.
And it’s this lack of separation between how a 16-year-old child does in their GCSEs and the career progression of any given teacher that drives pupil anxiety and fuels my intolerance of the current flawed approach to child mental health and education.
That’s not a criticism of the teachers, either – they are just as much victims of a broken system as the kids. It’s a condemnation of an education and long-standing, pan-Government system that values statistics above the mental health of our kids.
We may disagree on the causal effect, but as Natasha Devon rightly points out – ‘It’s not selfish to prioritise your own mental wellbeing, ever. After all, you’re no use to anyone broken’.
Children, not teachers, are education’s most precious asset. They are the clay and without them there is nothing.