League tables can make or break a school. So it’s no surprise that the majority of educational priorities are aligned with academic excellence – often to the exclusion of everything else. Creativity, empathy, imagination, critical thinking and a sense of worth cannot easily be measured, so don’t count in the statistics of how well a school is doing.
But this is a time when mental health among young people is deteriorating. The rising number of school exclusions also suggests schools are not catering for the needs of children who challenge their reputation for “excellence”.
Education policies appear to be contributing to the current crisis which sees anxiety and depression increasing at an alarming rate. Many young people do not like themselves or the world they are in. This is not surprising when children get the message that what matters most is high test scores and their greatest fear is not measuring up and being a “loser”.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. We need a different aspiration for education, one that fits with healthy child and adolescent development. Not only would all of this create more engaged pupils but there would also be fewer young people needing mental health intervention.
The ideal education
I believe it is possible to create an ideal school and classroom environment. Instead of league tables and Ofsted rankings, schools would be more aligned with the developmental milestones of children – rather than the desire to fill them full of facts and figures so they can pass the required tests.
This would see schools focus on fostering a sense of belonging among all students. This is important, because for all children, feeling connected remains a powerful ingredient for well-being. This includes how pupils feel about being in school.
In one primary school where I was working, a child arrived on her first day behaving “like a wild animal”. She came from a family plagued by addictions, violence and neglect. The staff agreed they would give her the love and stability she needed. By the time she was 11, despite some wobbles, she had attained basic skills and formed positive relationships.
Help them feel safe
In order to develop well, children also need to feel safe: physically, emotionally and psychologically. When safety is compromised, children are less likely to try anything new. When those who don’t “fit” are labelled and bullied, pupils struggle with maintaining a positive self image – which affects their mental health, often into adulthood.
In the ideal school, children would be valued for their unique strengths and qualities. A system of personalised learning and personal bests would ensure that each pupil was in competition with themselves rather than others.
They also wouldn’t be constantly anxious about not being “good enough”. Society doesn’t need everyone to be doctors or merchant bankers, we need people to do a great job as a bus driver or hairdresser and be proud of what they do.
Time for play and creativity
There is now broad agreement about the importance of free play for cognitive, language, social, physical and emotional development. Young people developing as nature intended are curious, creative, energetic and playful. Yet schools are regularly reducing the length of unstructured time children have throughout the day.
There has also been an outcry about cuts in the creative arts in schools. This is not only inconsistent with optimal child and adolescent development but makes little sense where innovative thinking is linked to economic growth and the media industry is a major employer.
Sitting listening doesn’t make for optimal learning – but is often how traditional classrooms are organised. Children are more likely to be engaged at school when learning is active and fun as well as challenging. Positive emotions open up cognitive pathways, and can help with problem solving and creativity.
It makes sense, then, to create a learning environment that is a safe and enjoyable place. This would see lessons structured around guided discovery, collaborative experimentation and the application of knowledge. There would also be various activities on offer – from football to dancing to martial arts – to help children stay both physically and mentally healthy.
Help children socialise
Although the primary site for socialisation is the family, what happens at school continues this process. In my ideal school, socialisation and language would become part of the formal curriculum and include social and emotional learning, citizenship and ethics. This would see young people discuss and reflect on identity, values, rights, responsibilities, relationships and resilience. As children copy the behaviour around them, teachers would also be aware of the models they provide and the messages they give about what is important.
In my ideal school, mistakes would also be part of the learning process – allowing children to be more independent in their thinking and learn for themselves. Education would be less didactic and controlling. Giving children more choice and autonomy leads to higher self-esteem and stronger intrinsic motivation. Pupils would be given a voice, encouraged to think for themselves, and offered opportunities to develop self-reliance.
There are, of course, many schools doing their best for pupils, often under difficult circumstances. But it is clear that aligning education more with how children actually develop would not only improve engagement and academic attainment, but would also help pupils stay mentally healthy.