The Best Days of Your Life?
July 19, 2023
Have you heard this? ‘Youth is wasted on the young.’
Or this? ‘Childhood - the best days of your life!’
People always seem to forget that being young is stressful. And there’s far more stress today than ever before…
Research has shown that 66% of 8 to 17 year olds suffer from feelings of stress and that 18% of children and 22% of young adults are experiencing significant mental health issues. That’s an increase of 50% since 2020. According to the Children’s Society, in the last couple of years, 55% of 16 to 25 year olds have talked to their GP about mental health concerns and over 400 000 children a month are being treated for mental health problems.
There is no denying that there is an unprecedented crisis in the mental health of children and young adults. But where is this stress coming from? Social media, peer pressure, worries about the climate crisis, an uncertain future…It’s a long list. And, at the very top of the list, lies the biggest stressor of all. School. An astonishing 93% of parents report that their child feels anxious about school.
High Stakes Exams
The UK education system is based on exams- from the moment children first arrive at primary school until they depart at 18, they are relentlessly tested. Baseline assessments for 4 and 5 years olds let them know what they’re in for straight away. Then, Year 1s have the controversial Phonics Screening Check which needs to be successfully passed or has to be retaken in Year 2. Children as young as 6 are already being taught that school is pass or fail, based on very narrow parameters.
Year 2 brings SATs and a subsequent narrowing of the curriculum to focus on English and Maths. As children move through Key Stage 2, they encounter the times table test at the end of Year 4 and then intense preparation for the Year 6 SATs.These tests for 11-year-olds undoubtedly result in stress as the results are nationally published, putting pressure on teachers to train their classes. Individual scores plot a child’s route through high school, affecting which sets they begin Year 7 in and setting their GCSE targets. If you perform well when you’re 11 years old then you’re expected to continue that trajectory through your teens.
At high school, testing really takes hold starting with GCSEs which were reformed in 2015 - abolishing coursework, increasing difficulty and significantly increasing exam time. These changes led to much higher stress levels among pupils, with 73% of high school teachers noticing a worsening of children’s mental health. The impact of these new, more challenging tests, also contributed to the UK’s shocking international position according to OECD data.
In 2015 and 2018, 72 nations were surveyed by the OECD to assess the life satisfaction of 15-year-olds. In the 2018 results, UK children reported the greatest decline in the joy of living - barely half were satisfied with their lives. Overall, the UK placed 69th out of the 72 countries. These findings are reinforced by the Good Childhood Report from the Children’s Society, which also concludes that the happiness of young people in the UK is declining alarmingly. Unicef outcomes place the UK in the bottom third of countries surveyed about child mental well-being. Young people’s mental health and happiness are deteriorating, just as exam pressure and expectation mounts throughout school.
Why Have Exams?
It is well known that exams cause stress. Ofqual even claims that this stress is not a bad thing. But isn’t it? What do the Government say? Surprisingly little. Ministers are usually quiet about the exam system. No one wants to rock the boat. However, shortly before the revised GCSEs were administered in 2019, Damian Hinds (then Education Secretary) wrote an article for the Times.
He admitted that the exam season is ‘a stressful period, the revision is draining, the exams are never nice and you know the results will stay with you, often affecting what you can go on to do next.’
He then concluded that exams are beneficial to all, focusing on ‘the importance of building character’ and having ‘the courage, resilience and determination to overcome adversity and cope with challenge.’ Hinds clarified that ‘stress and hard work are a part of life and if we want our education system to prepare people for adult life, this is one part of it.’
He never really explained how exams ‘build character’ or why stress needs to be part of life but he made it obvious that our leaders are very much in favour of exams! But why?
Education systems across the world love exams - it’s not only the UK. Most countries rely on them. There are many reasons for this…Exams are very easy to administer and mark. They create an illusion of fairness and objectivity. The results can be manipulated by modifying pass marks and boundaries, giving control to those in charge. They give pupils easily recognisable grades that are generally understood by employers, the public, and the media. Exams are the way it’s always been done.
But, there’s another reason. A reason that explains why the idea of exams being fair is illusory. Exams massively favour those from privileged backgrounds, particularly private schools. Smaller class sizes, better resources, more support staff to help struggling pupils and the budget for extra revision sessions all make a huge difference. As does the fact that private schools don’t need to follow the National Curriculum, so can really focus on exam preparation.
Let’s not forget the contribution of parents where research shows that £6 billion per year is spent on private tutoring, ensuring that some pupils get a huge advantage come exam time. With 61% of the current government having attended private schools, the system is unlikely to change. Even if it does cause massive stress for most children.
The Wrong Curriculum
It isn’t just exams, though. According to data, there are far too many children who simply don’t enjoy school for its curriculum contents.
In primary education, 76% of children like school while 24% don’t and 18% really dislike it. That’s a lot of unhappy children. In high school, the data is even more alarming where 54% of children reported to like school, 46% don’t like it and 28% really dislike it. So, why is there so much dislike?
It can be argued that the whole curriculum needs an overhaul as most school lessons focus on restricting learning to manageable chunks - easy to plan for and assess. Recall of facts and memorised knowledge is prioritised over creativity, inquisitiveness and spontaneity and most lessons focus on content that needs to be learned for exams and is then completely forgotten.
As part of their SATs, Year 6 children (11 year olds) are tested on their knowledge of grammar. Fair enough - people need to write sentences that make sense. Except, the grammar test focuses on what the writer Michael Rosen calls a ‘fuzzy mix of semantics’ and an ‘absurd syllabus.’
See what you think of the following question from the 2023 test:
Circle the coordinating conjunction in the sentence below.
Although our team was less experienced than the others and nobody expected us to do well, we won the tournament because we had practised regularly.
To answer successfully, you’ll need to understand the difference between coordinating and subordinating conjunctions. Which means grammar lessons. And in those lessons, you’ll also need to learn about fronted adverbials, relative clauses, noun phrases… The list goes on and on. Is it important? Well, it is if you want to pass this exam. But after that? How often does anyone need to think about grammar, beyond the basics? Does it matter if you can recognise the past progressive tense or the subjunctive voice? Would the time spent learning this stuff be better used on something else?
What about older children? Their curriculum is even more in need of an update.
High school physics requires pupils to learn over twenty equations. Now, this might be useful if you’re planning to study physics in further education, but the vast majority of people aren’t. They’ll just spend countless hours trying to learn facts they’ll never, ever use again.
How about this question from the AQA 2019 Physics GCSE…
The width of the cube was 18.45 mm.
The density of the cube was 8.0 × 103 kg/m3
Calculate the mass of the cube.
Now, to sort this out, you’ll need to know the equation for mass (density x volume). You’ll also need to work out the volume by cubing the width. And you’ll need to locate this information in a sea of other facts that are swirling around inside your head.
Facts that will almost certainly be lost when you complete school.
It’s probable that adults have forgotten 95% of the information learned during their school days. Memories that aren’t used (like physics equations) decay over time. Research has also suggested that the brain actively gets rid of information it no longer needs (like coordinating and subordinating conjunctions) and ‘Use it or lose it’ has long been applied to physical health and muscle fitness, but is just as true for the brain.
Try this…Think of something from your time at school. The chances are you’ll remember friends, events, people. Things that have helped shape you into an individual. You remember, because there’s emotional attachment or because the information is still important.
So, what does this mean?
We forget nearly everything we learn at school unless we use it regularly or there’s an emotional attachment. The vast majority of the school curriculum exists as a way to grade children, not to prepare them for life. Information is learned for a certain period or test and then lost. This creates stress, disengagement and dislikes for school.
A New Curriculum
It’s not all doom and gloom. Some of the current curriculum is perfect however most of this perfection actually lies within the basics.
No one would argue with the importance of teaching reading, writing and simple Maths. The primary school science curriculum supplies a strong grounding in biology, chemistry and physics. Children (and adults) understand the world more clearly with some knowledge of history and geography. RE can bring a diverse world closer together. PE puts action into a largely sedentary day. IT skills are vital for the modern world.
There’s a huge need for a complete overhaul. Art and music, two subjects that can provide true creativity and expression, are too often side-lined in a packed school day. Instead of being open, flexible and questioning, learning is reduced to memorising facts for high-stakes exams. Children are graded from the very start in a pass/fail system, with a huge impact on their self-esteem. Essential life skills are squeezed into special sessions or not taught at all and most importantly, stress levels are far too high.
Perhaps we should consider what we actually need to know for a successful life.
Relationships, jobs, money, housing, cooking, running a household, health, transport, politics… There’s a lot. Do we learn this from our parents? Through experience? Online? At school? Or do we just muddle through? Shouldn’t schools be able to focus on really preparing children for their futures? Shouldn’t that be the main focus, particularly for teenagers? Maybe this would lead to reduced stress and increased engagement in the classroom.
Perhaps we should look at the key skills needed for employment.
The NHS is the largest employer in Europe, and lists the following as key attributes for staff:
- Leadership skills
- Organisational skills
- Listening skills
- The ability to manage challenging situations
- The ability to manage stressful situations
- Developing expertise in specific link roles or through motivational interviews
- Understanding change and developing the skills to adapt.
Apple, the world’s largest company looks for:
- The ability to collaborate
- Excellent prioritisation skills
- Excellent verbal and written communications skills
- Success in team environments
- Flexibility with your schedule.
So, should we have a school curriculum that places these at its core? A curriculum based on people skills and ongoing development. That aims to produce rounded, capable, confident individuals. That’s designed to bring out the best in everyone. Wouldn’t this increase engagement and joy, while reducing stress? Wouldn’t this lead to a stronger, world-leading workforce? We don’t need a stressful exam to answer these questions.
If you are a parent struggling with your child's mental health or are a child currently in school and in need of support from a mental health professional, visit the Mindsum website for a free initial consultation.