Wellbeing is important across society, happy people are more productive and suffer less ill-health and are, well, happier. Having a high level of wellbeing when leaving school is known to have a much greater impact on life outcomes than examination success. Wellbeing is acknowledged as important by governments across the UK and schools are charged with improving wellbeing. For example, mental health teams will be working in schools in England.
What causes wellbeing issues in school? This is a complex issue but bullying through the many digital social platforms accessed by young people is often cited as the cause. However the assessment system must also bear its share of the blame, as is seen in several episodes in the the OU/BBC co-produced School series.
Taking action to avoid cyber-bullying
Schools can and do take wellbeing seriously, they teach their students about cyber-bullying and how to avoid it and they work hard to accommodate students who need different ways to access learning. They attempt to sort out the many varied problems that their students present. However, despite the workload they take on, we do not have a teaching workforce of wonder women and supermen, we have overworked and often overwhelmed teachers, who are doing their very best for their students. We cannot and must not ask them to do more, for the sake of their wellbeing. Teachers are already leaving the profession at an alarming rate.
There are schools that reduce examination pressure by teaching in an interesting, engaging and often collaborative way so that the syllabus is discussed and explored, the students know what they know.
The assessment system is currently used to hold schools accountable and schools can be condemned as failing, due to their results in the GCSE examinations taken by 16 year olds. Unsurprisingly teachers are under pressure to raise results at GCSE and they in turn put pressure on their students. In some secondary schools many students start answering GCSE questions right from the start at 11 years old. Schools hold extra revision sessions during holidays and after school, often starting a full year before GCSE, in order to try to ensure that examination results are as good as they can be. Students feel the pressure of the importance of these examinations and this often creates anxiety. Subjects that are known to increase students’ ability to deal with pressures at school, such as art, music and drama, are displaced in the curriculum to make room for more lessons in the subjects, such as mathematics, English and science, on which the school is judged.
Anxiety is not a good thing. When someone is anxious, often the freeze, fight or flight response is activated. This means that the brain is entirely focused on 'rescuing' the person from the situation, the thinking, reasoning and crucially the remembering parts of the brain are deactivated, making performing well in an examination almost impossible. High marks in these examinations are not crucial for the student – only for the school. Providing students perform reasonably well at GCSE they can enter an apprenticeship, take A-levels or move into other training, as they choose. They do not need A*s to take a productive place within society, it is the school that needs the A*s.
Taking the pressure out of exams
What can be done? There are schools that reduce examination pressure by teaching in an interesting, engaging and often collaborative way so that the syllabus is discussed and explored, the students know what they know. When the time comes, how to succeed at an examination is learned in a similar way. The students are confident in what they know and know how to answer examination questions, anxiety is decreased and wellbeing increased.
If they really wish to take wellbeing seriously, UK governments could re-think the accountability system and ask whether it is increasing equity in educational opportunity in a way that would justify the effect it has on many young people. There are many examples around the world of accountability without putting students under pressure. Such systems often support schools to support all of its students, for example those in Canada and Finland. Mental health teams would be welcomed into most schools, but they must be properly funded, and not from the already overstretched school and young people’s mental health services budgets.
Wellbeing is a priceless gift for young people, can government and schools work together to give students this gift?