Behind the Selfie-Stick Smile – Schools’ Commitment to Wellbeing for Girls 

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