I’m a mother first, teacher second. But it was as both of these that my heart sank at the recent
removal of Natasha Devon as mental health champion for schools. I teach in an independent school
so Devon’s ousting won’t affect our relatively enlightened approach to pupil wellbeing. But what a
message it sends out to the nation as to how we value good mental health, surely educators’ most
fundamental obligation – at a time when self harming is up 70% in two years and 48% of 11-14 year old
girls avoid some school activity due to hating the way they look *.
As one pundit recently put it ͚’Education is too one-dimensional to cope with the complexities of
being human’. We can’t just expect children to ‘get through it’ like we did. They are not like we were. Yes,
I did spend some of my youth in front of Little House on the Prairie with a Waggon Wheel while my
mum went out to work. It didn’t verge on the child abuse and I survived without PTSD. Yes I did have
a few detentions once; I was embarrassed, but not broken. Yes I spent summer holidays not on the
Algarve but in our damp caravan with my sister, the dog and a packed lunch. We learned how to tell
imaginative stories and make gloriously messy lemonade. Yes, I did get a D in Maths and had to redo
it before achieving the heady delights of a C. It didn’t stop me pursuing an academic career, albeit not as
an accountant. Today, it’s a completely different world. The demands on our youth are quite
terrifying and their fear of getting it wrong greater than ever.
I worry for our daughters. Some of them seem to have every hour in the day spent in structured
activity. Tutored to the point where they can’t think for themselves anymore they suffer
performance anxiety, body image issues (what is this obsession 13 year olds have with big lips? 13)
and friendship anxiety, fuelled by social media obsession feeding a whose-got –the-most
friends/best party/coolest boyfriend/straightest hair/highest results paranoia.
This is not exclusively a female issue, of course. My 14 year old son recently had experience of a
friend of his taking his own life. I’m not about to go into the details – I don’t even know all of the
details – suffice to say it shook the community to its core and so it should.
We all want happiness first for our children, don’t we? Or if that͛s too nebulous – a contentendness,
a peace within themselves. What parent would value 12 A*s over that? Yet it is the latter by which
society continues to judge our schools and our children. Schools whose mission statements rate
wellbeing as a priority generally maintain that this does not come at the expense of excellent results
– they would wouldn’t they? But where does this leave our children? Once again, the pressure is on
them to excel academically as well as the playing field, the debating chamber, the art studio, the
orchestra pit – all with a with a selfie-stick smile on their face that says ‘I’m a girl and what I do best
is to please everyone’.
If my daughter was 10 and I was looking for a school now, I would be asking: How will you help me
as a mother bestow the skills of being resilient and strong; of having values, imagination, grit,
emotional intelligence, problem solving, creativity, people skills, honesty, loyalty, integrity? I
would really push for specific examples. The overarching philosophy needs to be there of course, but
until the Government puts wellbeing back on the agenda, I would want the details. What is the
questioning policy and practice in the classroom? How is marked work fed back? How do girls play
to their own strengths in the classroom? Where are the opportunities for girls to take risks? How
does the joined up thinking work so that girls are not overloaded? How do you manage the provision
of the academic with their overall co-curricular opportunities? How do you check in on girls͛
wellbeing? How do you know they are as happy as is possible for a teenage girl to be? And I’d be lobbying
the Government like crazy.
* The Guardian ‘Teachers have to be therapist one moment, social worker the next’ 31 May, 2016