Our schools are under such enormous pressure to produce results that a teacher’s role by default is fundamentally to help pupils achieve academic success above all. Resulting in children believing that academic excellence is the sole purpose of their education. Sadly, the child is seen as a unit of production instead of a whole person, essentially neglecting their well-being. Could this be one of the primary drivers for our mental health crisis?
A friend of mine was invited along with her daughter to meet with their school’s head of sixth form. The head politely suggested that the school was not the right place for her daughter because she was not going to achieve the expected A-level grades. When her mother refused to withdraw her daughter, who had been at the school since year 7, the head relented, but insisted that she take the final exam as an external candidate to avoid the school’s A-Level grade average to be ‘negatively’ affected. At another local sixth form college, droves of children were told they had to repeat their first year of A-levels or were encouraged to leave because they were not going to obtain the grades desired by the college. A fifteen-year-old boy that I know, who had been living in England since the age of five, was instructed to take English as a second language for his GCSE because that would assure him and the school an A grade.
At the end of last year an educational authority had received all attainment grades from its primary schools. In January, all the schools were contacted, requesting them to check the data and resubmit it because the attainment levels were unsatisfactory. In other words, doctor the scores! These practices are common due to the pressures of attainment and league tables. In these situations, the school feels forced to comprise and cross a moral line, which results in the child becoming a ‘thing’ to produce, no more. It’s not that the teachers or schools are personally or particularly bad - it’s the education system that is flawed.
Things need to change drastically. It is imperative that we put character building first in order for us to protect the well-being of our children.
In an achievement-based culture the child is conditioned to be extrinsically motivated; “I attend school to work hard to get good grades.” Many might agree with this sentiment, but how can this be beneficial to anyone’s mental well-being? Surely being Intrinsically motivated should outweigh this bias prejudice? How is it possible to prefer external rewards such as a high grade, money or external consequences such as demotion or flunking above being driven by an interest or enjoyment in the actions required to achieve a goal? In a landmark study by Vansteenkiste and Neyrinck published in the British Psychological Society it was found that predominately extrinsically motivated people had more feelings of unhappiness, exhaustion and emptiness. The study showed that a strong emphasis on extrinsic life values is detrimental to well-being and associated with low self-esteem, poorer health, more depression and lower empathy for others. Since many pupils today hang their self-worth on extrinsic outcomes they are feeling increased pressure to perform with heightened stress levels. Within the UK, statistics reflect that: 526,000 workers suffer from work-related stress, depression or anxiety (new or long-standing) in 2016/17 and 12.5 million working days have been lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2016/17. Can all this be avoided by addressing the issues right from the start and getting on top of the problems during a person’s childhood and adolescence instead of trying to fix an adult? Schools are in the perfect position to aid with this crisis we are currently dealing with.
The time has come for a new report card that fosters intrinsic motivation and that shapes a child’s ethical character. To thrive, a child needs an education that is much more than academic success, their triumphs must be linked to their intrinsic values. The new character report card will not solely focus on the pursuit of attainment, but first and foremost, help pupils be more resilient, increase their love of learning, develop their autonomy and independence through personal leadership, and deepen their gratitude. Schools must become a vehicle for cultivating ethical character strengths that create enduring feelings of self-worth.
Moral character is the foundation of well-being because it determines our integrity, responsibility, resilience, choices and treatment of others. If we put too much pressure on children with extrinsic targets and send them out into society without sufficient character, they are likely to crumble when they fail or make unethical choices under pressure.
School leaders are welcome to learn more about building character, leadership and well-being within schools by attending our first UK ‘Leader in Me’ national conference in 2018, taking place on 26 April in Edinburgh and 27 April in London. Details will be available in the events section on our website events
Written by Clinton Lamprecht – Chairman United Education Group