Should schools do less?

Ave Kotze writes.

The article ‘Breaking down barriers’ by Pooky Knightsmith (September) on school-based approaches to mental health presents many thought-provoking ideas around how children’s mental health difficulties are seen and considered. It is refreshing to read about much needed attention from policy makers and education providers to start tackling the ever growing numbers of children who need support from mental health services.

But could schools be doing less? The article talks about the proposed extra-curricular lessons to boost resilience and promote wellbeing, training staff to recognise and oversee the approach, and creating extra pathways to help children access mental health services quicker. All this is great. Yet, amongst all the proposed ideas and suggestions, there is no indication of anyone stopping to wonder if schools themselves are in part the cause of children’s mental health difficulties.

Knightsmith talks about adverse childhood experiences and other unmet needs of the child as the cause of difficulties, but nothing about the high levels of pressure put onto children from a young age to thrive, compete, achieve; all with the background echo ‘if you don’t achieve, you are not good enough’. Interestingly, apart from stating that ‘our children are in crisis’, the article mentions ‘highly stressed and over-stretched’ teaching staff, not children. SATS, GCSEs and A Levels – are these tests really the only way to ’measure’ children’s capabilities, skills and knowledge? Or are they just a means to collect data to ‘prove’ the effectiveness of the teaching in comparison to other schools? I am not anti-exams but do wonder if they should carry as much weight as proposed by the head of the school?

Indeed, it is not the grades and exam results alone that place our children under extreme pressure. It is also about fitting in and standing out for the right reasons. It would be very naïve to think that we can change the view of Western society overnight but surely there is something schools can do to lessen some of that pressure. There is only so far one can stretch an elastic band before it snaps.

I wonder if it would be more beneficial to approach this less from the ‘medical model of mental health’ alone, where we tend to fix problems by adding stuff (e.g. trained staff, extra lessons). Perhaps we can also look at it from a psychological point of view by considering the precipitating educational factors that add to the list of ‘triggers’ in the mental health pandemic in youth. Maybe it is time to make changes to the school-based approach and not just target children’s mental health?

Ave Kotze
Assistant Psychologist
Herefordshire Mental Health and Learning Disability Services (2Gether NHS Foundation Trust)

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