Children v Choice, at the heart of the mental health crisis 2019

I have just spent the day at the University of Kent, in the company of a range of distinguished secondary school heads as part of our sector’s work in keeping up-to-date with Higher Education and their challenges, as well as reviewing the in-house work our sector is commissioning to ascertain the ‘facts’ about HE and life beyond Sixth Form are suitably researched and reported, both to our sector and the wider community, and as appropriate, the National Press.

On the way to and fro Canterbury, I am engaged in the usual chaos that secondary school leaders know well, responding to and discussing solutions for, the usual challenges that a headteacher faces in their daily lives. The radio on occasion is on in the background in addition. This channel-surfing head is learning across the bandwidth of private and public airwaves that actually ‘life as we know it’ is ‘not quite as we would wish it to be’! I am required to authorise (personally or by proxy) some ‘hatching’, ‘matching’ and ‘despatching’ decisions the airwaves are demanding of me.

  1. One of our Y11 pupil has chosen to release ‘shit’ perfume in the main teaching wing, making it almost unusable.
  2. Police and parents report that one of our secondary children has ‘rebuffed’ an approach by an unknown adult female to ‘give her a lift home’ last night.
  3. Danny Baker has ‘tweeted’ a picture of some adults hiding a smartly dressed ‘chimp’ – he’s been sacked by the BBC, what do I think?
  4. Liverpool and Spurs make up the all-Brit Euro Cup final; will Arsenal and Chelsea make it an all British affair for European football trophies this year?

Imagine a Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ)* exam paper 2019 on the above: In the four questions above, some of the questions that need answers are important, and some are urgent. Discuss?

*JCQ have written to all of its public examination centres this year on so many occasions, and visited them as well, to remind centres and subject leaders of the challenges to be met this summer:

  • No cheating by children or adults will be tolerated (plus lots of stuff on connectivity, information sharing etc.)
  • None of the difficult stuff you see in the exams this year will be seen ever again – get used to that!
  • Exam papers have been stolen and otherwise compromised, send back the ones you have got and we’ll send out replacements.

My normal day is spent in such utter chaos, not inflicted by myself or my colleagues or even my school. As I sit in my car near the M20/25 interchange, stationery in the seasonal but now unexpect torrential rain, my brain joins the above up with my ‘urgent preparations’ for Year 11 assemblies tomorrow, a.m. with the rest of the school and p.m. with their parents. Obviously we have way more happening in the background than this; both within a school community of 1500 and as part of the national care and education provision, your average headteacher in mid-May is thinking Budgets, Salaries & Pensions, Staff and Pupil recruitment, Calendar for school events and Staff Professional development, juggling the former with the urgent listed above (and beyond).

Children used to enter secondary school at 11, 12 or 13, and then (whether able or otherwise be then in the same school or other provider for 7 years of 5 + work/apprenticeship. ‘Nuff said.

Now, the 10 year old is presented with choices for 11+ entry. Ofsted grades and greater mobility encouraging further movement at 13+, 16+, 18+, plus the above and all of the rainbow of media info that they receive via social media. Children from an even earlier age are presented with a kaleidoscope of apparent opportunity with which they have no option other than to engage,

What chance do they actually have of surviving in this world in which parents and the wider world present them with choices with so many opportunities to fail? Almost more serous is the climate of fear and flight provided by national and world news bulletins for their information and education. As Simon Sinek makes utterly clear, all the important questions are about ‘Why’; given most of the above demand answers shaped by responses of ‘How?’ and ‘What?’, it is little wonder that our adolescent generation are in such a whirlwind of confusion and unwell-ness.

As I come to the close of this short blog, I see that Chelsea have been pegged back to 2-2 by Frankfurt, but Arsenal have 2 away goals now in the bank. 30+ minutes to go and all remains to play for. Adult or child, all I can be is a supporter and go-with-the flow. There will be tears of joy and disappointment after tonight, depending on which side you support. But life will move on, with a high degree of certainty that the ‘fan’ will remain the ‘fan’.

Children face failure to access their ‘choice’ at 11, find subject choices at 14_ are becoming illusory as Ebacc requirement replaces opportunity, that ‘move at 16’ becomes a prevalent state of mind for ‘subjects’ that ‘suit the learner better’, and that apprenticeships have reduced from 4/5 4 years to 1 as a bare maximum.

It’s time to recognise that we have destabilised almost completely the adolescent years, to no good effect. We need to restabilise the whole landscape; our children need recognisable stability in their environment for years not months, and assessments and examinations that fit a ‘norm’ not an exception.

Choice for us adults has catastrophized the last 10 years or more. High Streets (and the employment that goes with that) bear witness to how change causes much damage. The ‘Brexit’ referendum has not just ‘blocked’ the rest of government, but ‘broken’ our sense of ‘fair play’. Austerity has eliminated most of the flexibility that care, education, health, policing and public authority used to have, leaving a ‘lottery’ in its wake. I want our children and our children’s children to have opportunity lying in wait for them as they enter adult life, as it once did me. They just don’t need to be damaged by ‘false’ consumerism before they are mature enough to choose.

Footnote. I know many who read my words also know the ‘news’ that informs my writing. In case you don’t, please read this article, which is not about my school – https://www.tes.com/news/exclusive-schools-mental-health-crisis-out-control

Suffice it to say, that the challenges reported above are challenges I recognise too, and am dealing with really too regularly.

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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