Working to reduce the stresses of school life

Though there is no panacea for the mental health crisis, much can and should be done, says Dr John Hind

That there is, at the very least, something approaching a crisis in children’s mental health has become something of a truism in recent years. Indeed, the Prime Minister herself has described the lack of provision to support children with mental health needs as a burning injustice. Yet the widespread discussion of the issue makes it no less of a concern to the young people suffering, their families, friends and supporters. Nor does the discussion provide easy answers. The mixed reception for proposals to be included in the government’s forthcoming Green Paper on this issue highlighted the complexity of the situation, with the Children’s Commissioner for England arguing that the Green Paper is simply not ambitious enough to deal with the issue.

A part of the complexity of the situation is that no one set of mental health issues directly replicates any other. A whole variety of environmental and inherited factors contribute to the problems facing the individual child which means there can be no easy, ‘one size fits all’ solution to the problem.

There are, however, issues with which we, as schools, can offer some help. Interestingly, members of the House of Commons’ education committee asked ministers to consider the impact of “high-stakes exams” on children’s wellbeing, after young people said testing in schools was a “considerable source of pressure” and they were concerned about adverse effects on their mental health. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Schools Minister rejected this claim. In principle, it is true, the mere fact of sitting examinations need not be a trigger for mental health issues. However, when examination results become a key measure of school performance – and when poor performance has adverse consequences for schools and their staff – there is a clear danger that the significance of examinations can be exaggerated by staff, with the result that an appropriate balance to school life can be lost in a welter of intervention classes designed not only to help individual pupils, but also to boost a school’s league table position. Examinations are a core part of school life and must be viewed as such; I would in no way wish to diminish their importance. Yet when they become the be-all and end-all of a school’s purpose, then tensions on pupils are bound to increase.  

It is, paradoxically, by recognising that there is more to life than examinations that we give ourselves the best chance of passing them.

This is not to deny that examinations are a vital part of life: they are and it is vital that pupils prepare for them properly. Recently we have been exploring the idea of the revision clock – pioneered and developed by Sandringham School – as an effective and appropriate guide for revision. In encouraging young people to be proactive in their revision, spending time actively using – not just passively learning – material, it allows students to take charge of their learning, rather than leaving them in thrall to it. Effective though we believe it is, it will not eliminate exam stress – nor should it; we all know we are likely to perform better with a certain edge of adrenalin – but it does bring a sense of control which is essential to balanced mental health.

The concept of balance extends further too. A favourite concept of mine when discussing revision strategies with students involves three circles, representing academic work, some form of exercise and social life. I am indebted to our acting chaplain for pointing out that the exercise circle need not mean physical exercise (though I do commend the benefits of some form of strenuous activity as a counter to stress and depression – mens sana in corpore sano, or a healthy mind in a healthy body, may be a cliché, but it has gained that status for a reason). Rather, the exercise can be whatever we, as individuals, find stimulating and rewarding – playing music or painting, perhaps. The key, as we approach the important revision season, is to keep the circles in balance. There may well need to be an adjustment – typically the social life circle may diminish to create a little more space for academic work – but it is vital that academic work does not subsume all other activities during this period. With careful planning and a commitment to working hard when work is the focus, then examinations can be – if not stress-free – then at least manageable.   

“A whole variety of environmental and inherited factors contribute to the problems facing the individual child which means there can be no easy, ‘one size fits all’ solution to the problem.”

Certain factors underlie these thoughts. I am fortunate to work with a team of dedicated professionals who all wish to see their pupils do the best they can; they will highlight effective revision techniques, offer support when needed and, when necessary, chivvy their pupils into producing their best. They, too, are aware that a balanced approach to school life will bring the best results – this term alone has already seen first-rate music and dance performance; a diverse and successful sports programme; a cadet force training weekend in Arbroath; and Duke of Edinburgh Award practice expeditions at bronze, silver and gold levels. Extolling the values of teamwork, providing opportunities for learning outdoors and for self-discovery, and allowing for artistic and spiritual self-expression, all help to balance any idea that examinations are the sole measure of success in school: they bring a sense of perspective to life. That is not to say our young people do not have problems – our school counsellors’ workload is always at its greatest at this time of year – but their presence alone – and the work of a hugely dedicated and skilled pastoral team – means that we are in the fortunate position of being able to address problems as they arise; a luxury not afforded to all schools.   

So, whilst there is no panacea for the mental health crisis – and whilst its roots go far beyond what we as schools are able to control – there is, I think, much to be said for a balanced approach to life inside and outside school. It is, paradoxically, by recognising that there is more to life than examinations that we give ourselves the best chance of passing them.

Dr John Hind is Principal of Dame Allan’s Schools.

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