Primary school was about learning how to play, have fun and make friends. Happy children are more likely to learn and make the world a better place than unhappy ones.
Childhood hasn’t been cancelled exactly, but it is under extreme attack, as I’ve written before (“Suffer little children”). Today's subjects: stress, self-harm, suicide.
This week saw the launch of a campaign for universal access to school-based counselling services.
Reports the story in Schools Week: “A motion being put to the Association of Teachers and Lecturers’ annual conference in Liverpool, which calls for better promotion of mental health awareness in schools and a campaign for all pupils in England to have access to a counsellor, is expected to pass with the backing of the union’s leadership.”
There is certainly a need:
• One in five children have symptoms of depression and almost a third of the 16-25-year-olds surveyed had thought about or attempted suicide. In Ireland, children as young as five are thinking of suicide.
• A World Health Organisation survey in 2014 revealed a fifth of 15-year-olds in England said they had self-harmed over the previous year.
• An ATL union survey of its own members revealed that 48 per cent of respondents had pupils who had self-harmed, and 20 per cent knew pupils who had attempted suicide “because of the pressure they are under”.
General secretary Mary Bousted said it was “horrifying” that so many young people many are self-harming and contemplating suicide.
Increase paperwork until standards improve!
There is more testing, more homework, and it starts earlier. (Homework for 5-year-olds? Really?). Teachers are overworked and underappreciated (and underpaid), frantically trying to get results, write up reports, check all the boxes and generally enact the latest keep-up-with-China government initiative, all set against a backdrop of cuts in funding and services and in many cases financial hardship at home. The creative, nurturing, qualitative skill of teaching has been turned into a bureaucratic, morale-sapping, quantitative exercise in stress, low-grade trauma and Ofsted reports, one that kills joy in the classroom, erodes resilience and is creating a whole new generation of children who as adults will be susceptible to mental and physical ill-health.
There are roughly 200 governments around the world—200 education policies (or lack thereof), 200 places to look for examples of good ideas and bad ones, 200 petri dishes.
Why fawn over China—do we really want to look to an undemocratic communist government with a terrible human rights record for child-rearing tips? How about looking instead to the more relaxed approach of the Scandinavian countries, especially Finland, where education is free, safe and friendly, school starts at age 7, teachers are allowed to teach, and children are allowed to be children rather than treated as future economic units. Finland’s less-is-more education system has been described as the best in the world.
Mental-health difficulties are the leading causes of disability worldwide—almost a third of people globally will experience mood, anxiety or substance-use problems in their lifetime. The best antidote is a happy childhood.
As noted philosopher Whitney Houston put it:
I believe the children are our future
Teach them well and let them lead the way
Show them all the beauty they possess inside
Give them a sense of pride