At what price? Asks Helen Wright, who has taught in Hong Kong, the Middle East and Australia and has been headmistress of three girls’ schools including Heathfield in Ascot and St Mary’s Calne in Wiltshire.
The figures speak for themselves: the number of calls to Childline in the UK about exam stress has risen by 11 per cent since 2015, with the majority of calls coming from children aged 12 to 15. In a recent poll in Hong Kong, over 30 per cent of primary aged children were revealed to be at risk of suicide, due in large part to their schoolwork. South Korea has the highest youth suicide rate in the world, again because of the stress engendered by their education. Australian students come top in the exam anxiety stakes, according to the 2017 OECD report into child wellbeing – what on earth is going on, for this to happen in a country synonymous with a relaxed, laid-back life?
The issue lies fair and square with the system – a reductive one which tries to compare young people through numbers and outdated assessment processes, which has built up an expectation that if university isn’t your destination, you have failed. This expectation has become so ingrained in public consciousness – assisted in no small part by the claims of universities to be the best pathways to
a brighter future – that it takes a brave young person to break the mould and get off the treadmill.
Yet there are signs of hope. The UAE has followed through on the promise of its Ministry of Happiness, founded in 2016, with regular surveys of the school population, and the vow to intervene if and when it is needed, to improve pupils’ wellbeing. Persuasive voices around the world emphasise how success in the 21st century demands individuality and creativity of the sort that cannot be measured in our current system. When Andreas Schleicher, OECD Director for Education and Skills, who launched the first OECD PISA report on students’ wellbeing in 2017, starts talking about happiness, it is clear that the winds of change are stirring.
These seeds of hope need to flourish. All over the world, children are suffering because of the stress of their education; collectively we need to take radical action to change this. While it is always going to fall to individual young people to focus on their own personal mental health, supported and encouraged by their parents, families and teachers, it is up to the rest of us to work out how we can pivot and demand a return to what education should be about – the development of young people into who they are. This needs a concerted effort from all of us.
This article originally appeared in the Spring Summer 18 issue of School House.