Mental health risk to children trapped in ‘toxic climate’ of dieting, pornography and school stress

Roger Titcombe's picture
This is the title of an article in the Independent of 21 January.

According to the article:

'Children are living in an “unprecedented toxic climate” in which they skip meals to stay thin, are bombarded by pornographic images and fear they will be failures amid a “continuous onslaught of stress at school”, according to research published today.'

'A poll commissioned to coincide with the launch of a national campaign found 40 per cent of 11 to 14-year-olds said they missed meals for weight-loss reasons, while a similar proportion said their relationships with other children had been affected by watching pornography online.'

'Half of children and young people had been bullied and more than half believed they would end up being a failure if they did not get good exam grades.'

'The charity YoungMinds said the UK was sitting on a “mental health time bomb” and that action is needed by the Government, schools and parents to help young people cope with the pressures of modern life."'

If true, this is an alarming and depressing image of school life form pupils' perspective. Last year Channel 4 News produced a number of secondary school pupils who described the nature and scale of 'sexting' (think sending and requesting explicit selfies). The pupils claimed that phone-based pornographic sexual harassment of a gross nature was a regular and normal part of school experience.

In terms of sexual harassment this is many orders of magnitude more serious than the allegations currently being denied by Lord Rennard.

I don't know if this is indeed a 'mental health time bomb', but I do know for certain, that even if only partly true, it is not a good context for effective teaching and learning.

'Lucie Russell, YoungMinds’s campaigns director, said: “Every day we hear about the unprecedented toxic climate children and young people face in a 24/7 online culture where they can never switch off."'

'“Young people tell us they experience a continuous onslaught of stress at school, bullying, sexual pressures and bleak employment prospects. When this becomes too much for them they don’t know where to turn for help and when they do often the support just isn’t there for them."'

'She added: “It isn’t on Gove’s agenda really. It’s all about academic success. There is a strong link between attainment and emotional wellbeing.”'

I realise that adults have always panicked about the perceived goings on in the minds and lives of teenagers, but it can't help if the school system increases these stresses unnecessarily.

I recall the myth of the father who shouts at his wife, who harangues the kids, who kick the dog.

Isn't our school system like this? Heads and Principals are under football manager type pressure to get results and achieve league table success for their schools. League table failure spells 'relegation' in terms of able pupil recruitment followed by the sack, not to mention constant earache from Mssrs Gove and Wilshaw and the ever present possibility of an OfSTED visit going pear-shaped.

So the Executive Principal draws her senior team around her and shares out her stress. This is then suitably amplified for the necessary effect and passed down the line in various ways to the teachers.

What determines whether a teacher gets her PRP bonus, or conversely poor GCSE/SATs results and/or the thumbs down sign from the OfSTED inspector?

It is of course the pupils. So they must be in turn be coached, drilled, threatened, worked harder and pressured into producing the desired results. At least in the case of GCSE the pupils may benefit to some degree from their exam success (unless it is a worthless vocational equivalent), but failure to get the odd C is not as calamitous for them as it is for their teachers, the Principal and the school.

For innocent Y6 children SATs failure has absolutely no implications whatever. If their school goes down the pan as a result they will have moved on. On no account must they or their parents be allowed to catch on to this professionally dangerous fact, so there must be no let up in the pressure on parents.

Are parents concerned by the stresses that schools are loading onto their children? To judge by follow-up letters in the 'i' of 22 January they are. Here are some quotes.

'As the mother of two teenage girls I am horrified by how stressed they are by schooling where every piece of work or homework is marked to see if they are on target. My 14-year-old even gets told to remember her targets before PE lessons.'

'they are continuously judged and put under pressure so that schools can maintain their places in the league tables. Even the lunch breaks have been curtailed.'

'Young people are subjected to a relentless system based on passing exams rather than love of learning.'

'Gradgrind - style school policy seems to extend the British long hours culture to children.'

Perhaps I have been wrong to condemn floor targets. Could we just be targeting the wrong things?

LSN readers may find the experience of this parent relevant.
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Neil Moffatt's picture
Thu, 23/01/2014 - 14:43

Is part of the toxicity the ongoing entrapment that is part and parcel of being at school? Children have urges to roam, play and explore - being confined to a 'cell' is inappropriate for the amount of time that is deemed normal and 'appropriate' for schools.

Mobile phones represent an 'advancement' that has backfired massively, beholding children to countless hours on social media sites for fear of loss of face. And the mentioned sexting. We in the 'developed' world cannot see these problems for what they are until it becomes too late, almost, as now, when children are overloaded like this. being a teenager with the related hormonal and growth changes is enough in itself.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 23/01/2014 - 15:14

My concern is the apparent enthusiasm by Gove et al for children to spend more time in school and away from their parents. Dr Seldon, Wellington College, suggested recently that state schools should emulate independent ones and offer boarding.

There are parents, I know, who have no choice but to board their children (eg forces personnel, parent(s) whose jobs take them away from home etc). And there are a tiny number of children who would be better off away from their parents.

But the message seems to be that all children are better off spending longer time away from their family: shorter holidays, longer school days, Saturday school.

Good for employers, of course. No need to bother with flexi-time and family friendly policies if schools take over parental roles.

Neil Moffatt's picture
Thu, 23/01/2014 - 15:26

The political stance is, as always, unsympathetic to the true nature of a healthy, happy childhood. The repeated emphasis on academia for children makes life seem entirely predicated on academia, subverting natural, time-honoured development routes, such as spending time with family and other adults in order to emulate and get introduced into the ways of adult life. Adults, especially politicians, frequently undervalue the importance of time spent playing. It is counter-intuitive, alas, to see that 'play' can be as vital, or more vital, than formal education.

Brian's picture
Thu, 23/01/2014 - 15:35

Without wishing to sound too dramatic I feel that under Gove we are seeing the potential end of childhood. School is becoming a stressful experience for many, a place where conformity, for example to uniform rules, is seen as crucial. A normal school day is insufficient and many schools, especially academies and free schools, now offer extended days and even compulsory homework 'clubs.' They proudly announce more and more hours of homework as a requirement. Gove's vision of what childhood is for pervades. Being a child isn't to be valued in itself as an wonderful part of life, it's simply preparation for the adult world of work. Don't like it, tough, hard luck, you're worthless and your parents a disgrace ... welcome to Gove's New World.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 23/01/2014 - 17:10

The irony is that 'safeguarding' policies have been elevated to levels of importance never seen before. The many possible threats to children covered by everything that schools now have to 'safeguard against' are statistically, vanishingly unlikely, yet pupils appear to be feeling ever greater levels of personal insecurity and fear; apparently with good reason, behind the locked doors and despite all the CCT and other surveillance.

Neil Moffatt's picture
Thu, 23/01/2014 - 17:50

The protection is often driven by adult needs, such as the minimisation of litigation, and as you say, the needs of the children are rarely the direct focus,

Brian's picture
Thu, 23/01/2014 - 18:25

Just listened to Gove talking about improvements in secondary schools which have resulted from his reforms (??). What does this improvement mean? The 'economic futures of thousands of children are now more secure'. There you go ... education is about economic futures, i.e. the world of work, nothing else worth mentioning in this narrow view of education and childhood.

FJM's picture
Fri, 24/01/2014 - 22:54

These concerns have been around for a few years, so don't blame Gove for everything. Some of the anxiety about SATs, targets etc is passed on unnecessarily by teachers. I have to set targets for my pupils, but it takes about thirty seconds once a year for each one and I never refer to them again, as I think think the whole thing is a load of cobblers. I have taught in several state schools, none at all driven by targets, so it is not inevitable. Get a grip, everyone!

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 25/01/2014 - 09:08

FJM, you're right: all state schools are not driven by targets. However, I would suspect (no proof, this is my opinion) that these are ones with an advantaged intake with few low-attaining pupils (or none in the case of selective schools). These schools can afford to be nonchalant about league tables.

However, league tables do have a toxic effect in England (OECD, Academies Commission et al). Schools near the mandatory (and ever-changing) benchmarks can find themselves targeted for enforced academy conversion.

It's easy to advise "get a grip" but even schools who really believe targets are a "load of cobblers" (I agree) can't ignore them if the future of the school is threatened.

Brian's picture
Sat, 25/01/2014 - 09:22

' I have to set targets for my pupils but it takes about thirty seconds once a year for each one and I never refer to them again '

Really? So your pupils have no idea of where their learning is heading and how to get there. I see lots of effective target setting with pupils, where teachers discuss 'where next' and how to get there. There is also an expectation that pupils will develop the ability to monitor their own progress, often against agreed targets. To refer to target setting with pupils as 'a load of cobblers' indicates, at best, a lack of understanding. If you see target setting with pupils as purely 'by the end of this year you need to get Level xxx' then fair enough, but that's just a lack of understanding about effective target setting with pupils.

As for whole school target setting, which is a different matter, then I would agree entirely that it has distorted the education process. I'd also agree with Janet that the 'look at me I'm big and brave and don't do it' attitude is unhelpful to many (most) schools.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 25/01/2014 - 11:02

Brian - I agree with your view about agreeing targets with pupils (ie formative assessment). I must admit I wasn't thinking of that when I said I agreed with FJM about "targets" being "a load of cobblers". I thought he was referring only to SAT targets/NC levels which distort teaching. It also puts pressure on schools to perform which in turns puts pressure on pupils which in turn contributes to the situation Roger describes in this thread.

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