In which I begin with a moment of levity before writing an unremitting splurge of bleakness
Lets imagine a scenario. A masked person (of unspecified gender) bursts into a school. They open fire, killing, maiming and injuring both children and teachers.
The government, fully aware of this just shrugs and says 'carry on as you were'
That scenario seems unlikely.
I am old enough to remember my primary school (and high school) being a pretty 'free range' kind of environment. It was eminently possible to walk in (and indeed out) of the school but despite this it seemed fairly unthinkable that it wasn't a safe place to be. I remember Dunblane which changed that belief forever and now your average school resembles a low security prison.
It seems unlikely that the government would just shrug and allow things to remain 'as they are.' Evidence suggests when faced with a threat like Thomas Hamilton, the authorities act with fairly swift and decisive action.
Lets consider now that this 'gun wielding maniac' is a device. A manipulative weapon wielding device employed by the writer to grab your attention and focus your mind on the issue at hand. We are not actually considering the unlikely and almost impossibly painful possibility of a school massacre.
Let me present you with a few facts to guide you to what we are considering:
The suicide rate amongst primary school teachers is double the national average (according to this)
One of the prime causes of suicide amongst young people is exam pressure (according to this)
This well researched exploration explains that 27% of the suicides of young people studied in the report had at least some link to exam pressures.
This article explains that the majority of teachers feel their job has impacted on their mental health in the last year
This article - reports on the education select committee findings on the impact of primary testing on the wellbeing of learners.
However trite my analogy is (and I'm aware it's not exactly a sensitive one) the point is clear. We can link 'the education system' to the poor mental health of teachers and learners and even suggest a link to the deaths of teachers and learners.
Even if we take away the hysterical proposition of the gun wielding maniac and replace it with someone who at the school gates intimidates, frightens or physically harms the children, it's really quite unthinkable that action wouldn't be taken. Not taking action would be considered a gross neglect, heads would roll, scandal and outrage would have its day, newspapers and phone in shows would fill with frothing fury and bilious outrage. 'Schools MUST be safe places' we would shout.
Danger is not always visible. Sometimes you have to look beyond what you immediately can see.
Now, lets take the analogy a little further. Suppose the gun wielding maniac had attacked and escaped. Suppose there was nothing to suggest they wouldn't do it again.
Suppose the response from the government was to take away the fences, security doors and id badges?
Perhaps you're ahead of me here:
- Here is an article that deals with a parliamentary enquiry explaining the impact budget cuts have on mental health services
- Here is one of many articles explaining how workload increases are putting increased pressure on teachers
IF you've read this far, your probably aware of the corrosive impact of targets on education, you probably know that schools have to invest a huge amount of time and energy into the exam performance (at 7,11,16 and 18) of their learners. You probably know that if local authority schools fail to achieve a certain standard they are threatened with forced academisation which strips teachers of their hard fought rights and fundamentally changes the school's relationship with the support structures which surround it. You might be aware of the confusing and often botched changes to the GCSE and A-level structures and the removal or loss of focus on many of the more 'humanistic' subject areas in favour of measurement of a specific group of subjects.
You might possibly just look at the above articles and the brief paragraph of context and humour my overstretched analogy.
What if there was a threat to pupils and teachers alike, what if it was demonstrable, real and happening right now and the government just did nothing? What if our schools were infested with mould or dangerous wiring or some other kind of physical course of illness?
Why don't we take the raft of evidence of the impact of a target driven education system seriously? Why don't we listen to teachers and pupils when they speak out about this? How many breakdowns and suicides does it take before we take reform seriously and commit ourselves to properly looking at the needs of pupils (which are intrinsically linked to the needs of teachers.)
How do we allow education and the lives of those who live in it (young and old) to be subject to the whims of a tiny group of elite ministers who often have little or no experience of either comprehensive education or teaching?
I'm not suggesting that suddenly we can instantly turn education into place of happiness and joy unconfined overnight. Teaching is inevitably challenging and young people will continue to have complex mental health needs and suicide is something we should never simplify to one cause.
I am however suggesting very clearly that there is an identifiable human cost to some of the bad decisions made in education policy and a real negative impact from the structures imposed on schools and that we must, collectively, as parents, teachers and learners demand a more human system in which we are all encouraged to learn and teach in a more healthy way.
If we don't address this, the costs will keep mounting. We have to focus our energy, not on whining but on action and clear demands - not just for pay settlements and bribery for teachers to join shortage subjects, but for real changes. For pupils to receive an education which is broader and healthier than being drilled in grammar and Pythagoras 'because it's on the exam.' For teachers to be able to reflect, plan and access professional development and find some joy in their work. For us to be able to understand and appreciate that learning counts even if it isn't attached to a grade. To understand that teaching should be about giving people liberty, giving people skills, giving them things that make their lives better and that this isn't a stupid and romantic notion, it's actually the foundation and reason for the development of humanity.
We spend an increasing amount of time marketing schools, fighting in a competitive market place for learners, badging, branding, proclaiming USP's and asserting our 'identity' - why are we doing this? Does it have any impact on the actual experience of our learners or the quality of our teaching? Let's play a little mental exercise based on 'They Live' (a film in which a bloke discovers some magic glasses and sees the world as it is)
If we don these glasses, do we see signs like 'St Winifred's Academy - Our teachers are unstable and our support systems are overwhelmed, but with luck your child will escape with their self esteem intact' or 'Crowsend Primary - where 60% of the teachers are 'overwhelmed' and year 3 +6 are a miserable nightmare where you kid will learn a load of crap and forget about childhood'
Please can we properly discuss the mental health of our education system like grown ups? Can we drop the rhetoric and assumptions and have a really good think about it. Please can we at least try to fix it? We can send people to space, we can collide hadrons and have 76546 TV channels to choose from but we can't manage to make the innate (and very socially necessary) human skill teaching of young children a job that doesn't directly increase your risk of serious mental health problems?
What is this world we live in? Who is it for? Why do we keep perpetuating it?
What would your answer be to the problems posed above?