Bad Education

Half of mental illness in adult life starts before the age of 15 … and three-quarters by age 18.[i]

Meanwhile, the children and young people of today face heightened pressures and stresses … witness a big uptick in the numbers being treated for mental ill-health.[ii]

“… to effect big long-term improvement we must reform our whole education system. … this needs to start with radical change to the National Curriculum, especially in primary school but also beyond.”

England’s Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, says:

“… poor mental health has become part and parcel of childhood for many many children … I think we are seeing a real shift here in children’s mental health. It affects their achievements in school, their friendships, their self-confidence, their self-belief and ultimately their future. And I think it’s happened fast and it’s happened at scale.”

It’s not just the pressures from exams (and endless other tests) in a school system mired in ‘league tables’ and believing that exam results are the main point of education.[iii] It’s also the pressures, risks and cyber-bullying of a 24/7 social media, the insecurities around body image  … and the bullying, abuse and harassment that occurs outside of a cyber-context.[iv] Research from a respected mental health charity (Mind) suggests that one in five young adults in the UK will end up crying in any given week because of stress and anxiety.[v]

It’s therefore no surprise that when the UK Youth Parliament voted (December 2015) to choose their priorities for the year ahead, nearly one million young people chose ‘compulsory mental health education’ and a ‘curriculum for life’ as two of their three most important aims.

The National Curriculum:

With children and young people, one way to prevent the escalation of mental health problems into acute and/or chronic conditions is, of course, to identify and work early with signs of (for example) depression, strong anxiety or overwhelming stress.

But more fundamentally – and to effect big long-term improvement – we must radically reform our whole education system. And in the UK at least, this needs to start with radical change to the National Curriculum, especially in primary school but also beyond.

We need a curriculum that focuses much, much more on teaching a wide variety of age-appropriate, interpersonal and intrapersonal understandings and skills … including, for instance, those connected to emotional/psychological understanding (e.g. empathy and the capacity for self-reflection), social skills, relational skills and communication/listening skills.

It also needs to focus much more on expanding the powers of imagination via various types of art classes, especially drama.[vi] Why? For many reasons, including:

  • Empathy is emotional resonance – being able to really feel what the other person is feeling. This of course can only come after you have recognised what they’re feeling and if you yourself have experienced that emotion. Such experiencing can be facilitated within schools, in a safe space, within the context of drama lessons for instance.
  • It will facilitate development of pupil-realisation that they are not (and do not have to be) a fixed identity, but can have many different identities and play many different roles in life.
  • It will facilitate the ability for ‘mental time travel’, including deferred gratification and imagining/considering the later stages or end of any process.

Moreover, as Francesca Happé (professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, King’s College, London) has said:

“People who are callous and unemotional and have psychopathic tendencies don’t have fear as an emotion and they don’t know what fear is and so they don’t respond to others’ fear and distress. So your own emotional landscape, literacy and palette is really important, just as your own ability to connect with art through your experience of making art is incredibly important.”

Instead of treating all these things – interpersonal and intrapersonal understandings and skills, and the development of the imagination – as marginal subjects to be shuffled off into the rag-bag of Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE), we should recognise the central role they will play, pretty much each and every day in each pupil’s entire life, in greatly helping them maintain not just their own well-being, but also the well-being of others.

“… the National Curriculum largely centres on things that that the majority of children and adolescents don’t need to know and will never use.”

But as things stand – and aside from teaching the valuable skills of reading, writing and basic arithmetic – the National Curriculum largely centres on things that that the majority of children and adolescents don’t need to know and will never use.

The cosine of wasted time, the algebra of trivial information. Months spent on calculus, scant time given to schooling empathic imagination. Years ransomed to teaching foreign languages, yet many can barely grunt in the dialect of relationships. A decade or more given over to studying facts and information about the outer world, with barely a glance at the inner worlds that will affect them, their lives and the people around them so much more.

When was the last time that most people ever needed or used a knowledge of chemistry or physics or geometry? And in contrast, when was the last time you felt depressed or stressed or anxious or lonely?

It’s fine to give pupils an awareness of the existence of a broad array of subjects in the fields of mathematics and ‘hard’ science – and to give them a brief outline of what they involve. But to spend so much time on these areas is, for most schoolchildren, a total nonsense and waste. The time for a pupil to study something like chemistry (for instance) in any great detail is when (and if) they actually – and of their own volition – take a strong interest in the subject.

A wellbeing society:

There were over 58,000 children identified as needing protection from abuse in the UK in 2017.[vii] Meanwhile, the numbers of children actually in the child protection system are increasing, as are reports of sexual offences against children.[viii]

In England and Wales, 30.0% of women and 16.3% of men have experienced domestic abuse since the age of 16: around 4.9 million female victims and 2.7 million male victims?[ix] And a 2010 study found that 11.3% of young adults in England aged 18-24 had experienced sexual abuse during childhood.[x]

Meanwhile the police-recorded crimes in England and Wales[xi] for the same period show:

  • Nearly 1.4 million violence against the person offences (an 86% increase from 10 years previously). This equates to an average of nearly 27,000 such incidents every week!
  • Over 150,000 sexual offences, including nearly 54,000 rapes (the latter is a 320% increase from 10 years previously).
  • Over 97,000 other sexual offences (a 145% increase from 10 years previously).
  • Over 295,000 cases of stalking and harassment.

And a family doctor with an average number of patients will have 300 addicts of one kind or another on their books.

Crime, violence, sexual abuse, domestic abuse, addiction, bullying (etc.) … all occurring on a huge scale, generation after generation.

It’s not just that emotional and mental illness is a major cause of much of this – and/or is triggered by this. It’s also that the majority of bio-physical illnesses are caused by lifestyle issues –  obesity[xii], smoking and excessive drinking (together with other addictions) – that stem primarily from underlying psychological factors.[xiii]

The questions:

In the face of all this – the sheer scale of emotional and mental ill-health, lifestyle-induced physical illness, domestic and sexual abuse, the violence and crime in society – we are entitled to ask:

  1. How is it that so many children exit from our school system, after 11 years or more of full-time education, so lacking in the social, emotional and psychological skills and understandings that would greatly help them (and those around them) throughout their life?
  2. How is it that so many children exit from our school system, again after 11 years or more of full-time education, to become the teenagers and adults who commit such violence, or live such unhealthy lifestyles, or engage in domestic and sexual abuse?

In truth, we will never break these endless, generational cycles until we put the teaching of emotional and psychological understandings and skills centre stage in our schools. And we will never create a wellbeing society until we dramatically improve the power of imagination in all children.

In loco parentis:

We know that many children come from difficult – in some cases horrendous –family, domestic and social backgrounds … circumstances they have to endure on a daily basis. The education system cannot change this … cannot really influence the parents (or parent) of such children and cannot immediately change their social, economic and other circumstances.

But what it can and should do is act far more in loco parentis than currently.

Schools have charge of children and adolescents for 11 years or more, 39 weeks per year, 5 days a week and around 7 hours per day. That’s a total of roughly 15,000 hours … plenty of time in which to teach children and adolescents the emotional, psychological and imaginative skills and understandings that some of their parents will not teach at all, and which the majority of parents will not teach especially well.[xiv]

But instead, currently, teachers are weighed down and distracted not just by the misguided demands of the National Curriculum, but by bureaucracy, school league tables and a risk-averse, narrow-minded and deeply unimaginative culture emanating from governments of all shades, past and present.

A wider definition of schooling:

Beyond radical reform of the National Curriculum, and beyond acting much more in loco parentis, we need to widen the concept of schooling itself. For example …

In Rewild the Child, George Monbiot has written:

“A week in the countryside is worth three months in a classroom. What is the best way to knacker a child’s education? Force him or her to spend too long in the classroom.”

This perhaps applies especially to the significant number of children labelled as having “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” (ADHD). But the approach needed is not confined just to time spent in ‘nature schools’ or engaging in school sports. It extends to time spent collectively, as a class, in staging drama productions (for instance), or creating and tending a school garden or vegetable plot, or perhaps in hiking the full length of the Pennine Way.

The economic and social benefits to society:

Many see the main purpose of education as preparing children for the world of work and earning a living, with the exam-based system acting to grade children according to their fitness for different levels of job responsibility. After all, such folk will say, we need future tax-payers to pay for schools (and many other things) in the future.

And of course we do need future tax-payers. But how much of the government’s income is spent on paying for the mess created by ongoing high levels of emotional distress and mental illness [xv], of crime, violence, sexual and domestic abuse, lifestyle illnesses, addiction and substance abuse (etc.)?

The answer – from hospitals, clinics and GP surgeries, from the courts and legal system, from the police and prisons, from social security payments to unemployed ‘unemployables’, from social services and well beyond – is “vast, vast amounts!”

So in the end, our current educational focus turns out to be counter-productive and short-sighted.[xvi] It delivers what can truly be described as a bad education.

Richard Oldfield

* * * * * * * * *

[i] Source: This excludes dementia – a bio-physical illness with often pronounced mental and emotional effects.

[ii] Almost 400,000 children and young people a year in England are now being treated for mental health problems, the highest number ever, according to the statistics for those aged 18 or younger as published by NHS Digital (July 2018). This is a third higher than the same month two years ago.

[iii] The mental health of children as young as six is being blighted by exam stress, education staff have told the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL). Of 420 ATL members who responded to a poll (April 2016), almost half said pupils in their school had self-harmed – and 89% said testing was the main source of stress (my emphasis). Some staff said they were aware of pupils attempting suicide – and 18 of these were in primary schools.

“Mental health issues are probably our biggest barrier to academic progress,” said the head of a Norfolk primary school, ahead of the second day of debate at the ATL’s annual conference in Liverpool. “As head of school I am spending more and more of my time supporting children with mental health issues,” added the head, who added that the member of staff responsible for pastoral care was “now snowed under”:

[iv] The Annual Bullying Survey 2016: 1.5 million young people (50%) have been bullied within the past year. 145,800 (19%) of these were bullied every day. People who have been bullied are almost twice as likely to bully others. 4% of young people who have been bullied experience depression. 41% of young people who have been bullied experience social anxiety. 3% of those being bullied have suicidal thoughts.

Moreover, a 2014 survey by Girlguiding UK found that 59% of young women aged 13-21 had faced some form of sexual harassment at school or college in the past year.

[v] Source (Sept. 2015):

Nor, of course, is it just school-children who are affected. 43% of teachers have experienced violence from pupils in the past year (1,250 staff surveyed by the ATL teachers union, results published January 29th 2016).

Teachers in the survey put the cause of violence down to a number of things. Some 78% pointed to emotional and behavioural problems as the cause, while nearly half said it was down to pupils’ mental health issues. And nearly two-thirds of teachers felt pupils were under more stress than two years ago.

[vi] The New Psychology of Health: Unlocking the Social Cure explains why pupils jointly staging a play or other stage production is a great idea.

[vii] The NSPCC, via the child protection register and plan statistics for all UK nations for 2017.

[viii] Bentley, H. et al (2018) How safe are our children? The most comprehensive overview of child protection in the UK 2018.

[ix] 2012-13 Crime Survey for England and Wales, Chapter 4 – Intimate Personal Violence and Partner Abuse, Office for National Statistics, Feb. 13th 2014.

[x] Child abuse and neglect in the UK today, a report from the NSPCC.

[xi] Source: Crime in England and Wales: year ending December 2018.

[xii] According to Prof Nick Finer, from University College London’s Institute of Cardiovascular Science, obesity is now “the most pressing health issue for the nation”. He says that “estimates of the economic costs of obesity suggest they will bankrupt the National Health Service.”

[xiii] This is why attempts to tackle them with advertising campaigns or taxation (or a combination of both) have met with only limited success.

[xiv] Just over half (55%) of parents in England have never spoken to their children about the topic of mental health (including wellbeing, stress, anxiety and depression). One fifth of the 55% said they chose not to because they wouldn’t know what to say. And 45% of the parents surveyed said the main reason they hadn’t had a conversation was because it’s not something that they feel they need to discuss:

Source: online poll of 1,102 parents of children aged 6 and over, conducted by Opinion Matters on behalf of Time to Change (a mental health anti-stigma programme led by charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness) and published on Nov. 30th 2015.

[xv] One four people will suffer a mental health problem at some time in any given year (with anxiety and depression being the most common), not least the more than 53,000 people in Britain – the highest number ever recorded – who were detained last year under the Mental Health Act: “Britain’s Mental Health Crisis”, BBC Panorama, October 26th 2015.

And according to a briefing from the Economic & Social Research Council, mental illness is now nearly 50% of all ill health suffered by people in Britain aged under 65, and accounts for 23% of the total burden of disease: “Cutting NHS costs with mental health investments” (May 2013).

[xvi] Every £1 invested in children’s social and emotional learning can save society £5.08 (over 3 years): Commissioning Cost-Effective Services for Promotion of Mental Health and Wellbeing and Prevention of Mental Ill-Health, by Public Health England.

Rate this post


  1. James Sewell

    Great post! The exact same argument could be advocated in many nations, as well.

  2. Pingback: Instead of rote learning useless facts, children should be taught wellbeing – A New Vision for Mental Health

Any reply would be very welcome


Get the latest posts delivered to your mailbox:

Your email address will not be passed to any other organisation. It will only be used to send you new posts made on this website.