If this is a lost generation, who is really losing out most?

Before reading this post, I’d ask that you watch this poem first ‘Lost Generation’ which I first saw when it was shared by Ian Gilbert, but was reminded of again last Friday at Independent Thinking Ltd’s Big Day Out in a Primary School. The event was held at the wonderful Ledbury Primary School – a place of real inspiration, I will blog about at a later date, which is run by the equally wonderful Julie Rees (Twitter @julierees100). The final session of the day run by Simon Cooper-Hind was a session full of laughs and reflection, not easy at 3:30pm after a full day, and included the above video.

On driving home and having the Bank Holiday weekend to reflect on the entire day, but especially Simon’s session, I realised how true the first half of the poem is for so many children, too many in my view. I began to wonder why this was so and what the true extent of the issue is.

Then, following on from my last blog about the trials of the SATs for many children, I was fascinated to read this by Lord Danzi Our Schools Have Become Exam Factories – Which Is Bad for Children, Bad for Education and Damaging to Our Mental Health. Of most concern to me was this key passage:

“…A child’s emotional health is the best predictor of whether the adult they grow into will be satisfied with their life – far more important than their academic achievement. One in ten children under 18 has a diagnosable mental illness – mainly anxiety, depression or conduct disorder – which casts a long shadow over their lives…”

Yet that statistic ‘…One in ten children under 18 has a diagnosable mental illness …’ How can that be right? Not the statement’s validity, but that we live in a society where, on average, 3 children per class have a diagnosable mental illness? And then, I have to ask, what about those with an undiagnosable illness? A quick search on the Internet (especially at Mind’s website) informs us that this is a huge number.

So, allied to my recent trend of blogs about whether we live in a society where we like children, I have now decided to go further and wonder if we don’t actually do harm to them? After reading the Lord Danzi piece and reflecting on experiences shared by colleagues, (not just the rants) on Twitter, I think, regretfully, I have to conclude we do.

However, perhaps of biggest concern is that mental health issues continue to pervade education, despite the fact it, particularly depression and stress and the subsequent self harming that schools are witnessing, has been raised for a long time and aren’t modern phenomena. A recent BBC report stated that in one year there was almost 29 000 incidents of self harming (2013-14), whilst the NSPCC provides help and support for this issue (here) and there is even a site for support http://www.thesite.org/mental-health/self-harm. How can this be the case in Great Britain in 2015?

More importantly, how and why are we getting it so wrong for those who are to be the future of our country?

I suggest a few of reasons:

  • Mental health issues are too often tackled [heroically] at school or local level.
  • This means interventions are too localised and individual for the most effective interventions to work.
  • National interventions are seen as too costly and (in my opinion) having the potential to upset the status quo that has existed for too long in schools and societies at large – i.e it’s part of life, get on with it to keep the hamster’s wheel turning (explained perfectly here by Billy Crystal in City Slickers.)
  • The pressure that schools feel to produce results is passed onto the children in the chase for grades and making the expected progress on the data spreadsheets.
  • Parents, in wanting the best for their children, add to the pressure and build stresses, feeling that education and exam success provides the route out.
  • Children, in taking on the pressures and expectations of their schools and parents, but in not wanting to disappoint them, keep their feelings inside – but they have to escape in some way.

However, I propose, of most concern are the following:

  1. As with so much in modern society, there is a lottery of funding and allocation of resources, which leads to a grand competition for the limited pot of finance and expertise. This means boxes needing to be ticked become more important than the actuality of the situation. For example; I live in Aylesbury, where professionals who work in this area tell me funding and support for those in need in this area is dire, whereby it’s easier for those in need to move to a different area. (Similarly, according to statistics there is no homelessness in Aylesbury either!)
  1. Instead of joined up thinking, linking; education, welfare and health at a national level, with a clear direction of policy and support, we still operate in silos of ideas, information and funding. This requires the best of communication to prevent the vulnerable from falling through the cracks, as well as much duplication of personnel resources (and undoubtedly forms to complete!)
  1. Changes in policy affect the most disadvantaged, with the least voice; others with more personal resources can try to find their own solutions – thereby ‘letting off’ the powers that be. (In addition, this creates the veneer of there being less of a problem than there really is.)

And then, as with many things in education, this is underpinned by the ‘it’s just what I was used to at school and it didn’t do me any harm’ mantra. This comforts parents as it makes them feel that there is consistency and continuity of experience, even though they want better for their children than they received. However, this was also the argument that used to pervade debates on; Corporal Punishment, Slavery, child labour and others. Shouldn’t we be better than that in 2015?

So, what do we do to tackle this ever increasing issue – not only increasing in sheer volume of cases, but (perhaps more worryingly) the decrease in age when these signs are seen, traditional Year 9 ‘issues’ are now seen ever increasingly in junior and primary schools.

We have to acknowledge that it won’t be easily, nor quickly tackled, it will take a sustained effort and there are likely to be ‘defeats’ along the way. But on the way to succeed a few suggestions I have are:

  • Teachers need to stop peddling the myth (as Ian Gilbert states) ‘work hard and do well at school and you’ll be a success in life’.
  • Which links to the ‘exam success is the path to life happiness’ myth.
  • All of the teachers (and there are many) who recognise the issue should stand up for the children and start removing the pressures.
  • In education we should stop using Dweck’s Mindset work as a stick to beat the resilience drum in order to add pressure; in my opinion more people should actually read the research fully before promoting it.

As I said, this won’t be easy. It needs a radical overhaul of ideology, linking education, welfare, health and social aspects together, but as Camila Batmangeilidgh (quoted in The Four Horsemen Mark Braund and Ross Ashcroft) says,

“Human beings are fundamentally organised around the need for meaning.

Having meaning for why you live your life, and having a sense that your life

has a destination or a purpose, is an important organizer of individuals’ lives

and also communities’ lives.”

This means that we need to look in greater detail at what gives us true purpose to our lives. Interestingly, in research conducted by John West-Burnham parents stated that their 3 priorities for their children’s education were for them to be:

  1. Happy – this was 1st by long way
  2. Safe
  3. Successful – this was well behind the first 2 priorities.

Therefore, with the joined up thinking I propose, perhaps the scary element is that we can no longer trust our leaders; regardless of political hue, to do this for us.

If our leaders are powerless to effect change,

then it’s time we took matters into our own hands’

(The Four Horsemen Mark Braund and Ross Ashcroft)

Too many solutions are populist and short term, based on the fixed term nature of parliaments and therefore transient. Remember the demand that ‘We need to be more like Finland, they’re need the top of the international league tables’. However, there was clear ignorance of their societal differences – particularly around community cohesion, age of starting education, trust in teachers, focus on play, linking between education, welfare, health and social policies and, every teachers favourite, they don’t have an equivalent to Ofsted!

Therefore, we need to be brave, be bold and challenge the accepted and perceived wisdom that too often disempowers too many and also has seen an almost inevitable acceptance of the inexorable march towards another generation of children with mental health issues, parented by those whom the system has already failed.

Why do I see this as such a challenge? It’s explained in The United States Declaration of Independence (quoted in The Four Horsemen Mark Braund and Ross Ashcroft)

“All experience has shown that mankind is more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable, than to right itself by abolishing the forms to which it is accustomed.”

And this was written in 1776!

So yes the challenges are huge, but tackling them bit, by bit; together will reduce them. Perhaps, it was best summed up by Charlie Chaplin, for as Ian Gilbert says, “You have to laugh, for education is too important to be taken seriously.”

About M Creasy

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