John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Chairman of the Conservative Education Society.
Mental health is a big issue in education across the developed world, and it is time we started to do something about it. For teachers as well as pupils, it appears to originate in stress and anxiety, though the point at which these become a threat to health is impossible to pin down. Each person’s experience is different from birth, and attempting to isolate single factors, using the methods of sociology, can never get to the heart of individual cases. For example, our opponents see stress as the result of tests, and prefer continuous assessment and coursework. One of my sixteen year old pupils, by contrast, found the pressure of continuous coursework so demoralising that he could not put pen to paper and needed hospital treatment. I stopped short of that at university, where mine was one of the first to use continuous assessment, but completely understood how he felt – a system designed to reduce pressure from final examinations had, for me, the effect of making it last four years.
For children, stress often begins with the transition from home to school. If they don’t know how to get along with others, their instinct can often be one of aggression or withdrawal, and I won’t forget the wonderful atmosphere of family lunch I saw with four and five year olds at Wentworth nursery school in Hackney while I was a consultant there. It was exactly the same as that at Michaela, for children six years older, many of whom candidly admitted that they had been allowed to mess around all day in their primary schools and were now happy to work and learn, part of which included lunchtime conversation. Everyone’s best was good enough – including their teachers’ – and they were encouraged to celebrate it, “loud and proud”.
The policy of tolerating poor behaviour in the name of inclusion, still tacitly practised in many schools, is a major threat to the mental health of teachers, as it prevents them from doing their work. I’ve seen a class deliberately reduce a teacher to tears during an inspection, and when I intervened to restore order, telling them that they were not going to do that to one of my colleagues in my presence, the school complained, saying that education was a tough business and that not everyone survived. In the East End in the seventies, I had a pupil who would now almost certainly be assessed as having Tourette’s syndrome – which no-one had heard of – whose continual outbursts nearly drove me to distraction. Others have not been so fortunate, and careers and lives have been wrecked when they have been driven beyond endurance. Teachers should have the right to impose an immediate and substantial detention, organised by senior management, and heads who don’t ensure good behaviour in their schools should be required by Ofsted to change their ways.
The next issue is failure: real, imagined, or feared. In 2005, when we were ruled by Blair, Brown, and Balls and did not have an education department, an 11 year old pupil of mine couldn’t sleep because every morning the teacher would read out the scores achieved by each child in the mock SAT test they sat the morning before. They did this in English and maths each morning, a practice that, alas, persists. My pupil’s scores were not good, as she was late in learning to read. I made a quick trip to Waitrose to buy some nice things for tea for her and her mother, and we composed a letter to her headteacher. The practice ceased, and she is now a First-class honours graduate with a PhD, but she is by no means the only high flyer to suffer in this way. For some, anything short of an A* is failure – I know of one who was seriously upset with 11 A*s and an A – and this needs to change. People develop at different rates, and I agree with Angela Rayner that many of us need more than one chance.
The problem is international. The 14 year old son of a friend in Spain has three hours of additional maths tuition a week, in addition to two hours homework each night. Peter Gumbel, who has had two daughters in French schools, describes a regime virtually founded on stress, in which even recruits to the top Grandes Écoles are commonly given grades of 2 or 3 out of 20 for their work, until they learn to think as their teachers think. Lucy Crehan’s “Clever Lands”, a self-funded journey through school systems across the world, lists many similar examples alongside her praise of Finland. The most chilling to me was the Japanese proverb, “The nail that sticks up will be hammered down.” Much of Crehan’s book is taken up by descriptions of alternative education for pupils who have failed in the school system, and been written off as useless. The systems themselves are not always particularly clever.
Ours certainly isn’t, but some simple steps could easily improve it. Abolishing tests and publication of results is not one of them. They were introduced in the early nineties to combat chronic and perpetual underachievement and the new checks on phonics, tables, and baseline have not caused the stress claimed by our opponents. Targets for secondary schools have not eliminated very low standards, whether or not the schools are called academies, but they have cut down the number of extreme cases, and made it clear that languishing is not an option.
Putting test results in context, and giving schools a fair chance to improve, is another matter. Heads have reason to fear for their jobs where test results are poor. However, the micromanagement that too many engage in, effectively requiring teachers to write down everything they do, and hand in planning, is a form of executive bullying that does not happen anywhere else in Europe. It harms teachers’ family lives and mental health, causes many to leave early, and needs to be stopped – exhortation won’t do it, but Ofsted’s new framework, and its decision not to consider schools’ internal data, might help. Our opponents need to abandon their dogmatic attachment to mixed ability teaching, which hobbles the most able pupils, while making the least able feel frustrated and inadquate. The “differentiation” that is supposed to make it work cannot give them the very small steps and additional explanation that they need in order to succeed. The emerging evidence from brain research – “The Learning Brain” by Blakemore and Frith remains a good starting point – shows us that all learning involves the formation and consolidation of networks in the brain. This can’t happen if pupils are overloaded or rushed. In the end, a solution to the growing problem of mental health may be found in a combination of brain research, and common sense.
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