In less than two weeks, 250,000 18-year-olds in England will turn up at school for one last time to collect a piece of paper on which three letters of the alphabet will be printed. These grades will sum up their academic achievement so far, will affect the rest of their education — and possibly the rest of their lives. Twenty-five of them will be students of mine.
I don’t know how they’ll feel on the day, but I am full of doubt. Since last September I have done my best to teach them monopolistic competition, the Laffer curve and the rest of A-level economics. But have I given them the support they need in any broader sense?
Across the country, these teenagers are probably the most fragile, inadequately prepared and unhappy group of Year 13 students ever to collect A-level results.
They missed half the work in Year 12 as they were incarcerated in their homes. They had never taken public exams before as they missed their GCSEs. Add to that the emotional fallout from Covid-19: it is not easy being a teenager at the best of times, but the pandemic was the worst of times when they were cooped up away from friends and relations and without any of the rituals of life that keep them sane. We all knew that those who were barely coping before the pandemic were going to emerge from it worse off than before.
What I didn’t know was just how widespread the distress would be and how long it would last. I also had no idea how difficult this was going to make teaching. “There is an anxiety epidemic in children of all ages, all over the country. It’s even more marked than I expected,” says Rachel de Souza, the Children’s Commissioner for England, who last year surveyed more than half a million children on the effects of lockdown.
The latest NHS figures for England show the number of young people with a “probable mental disorder” has gone up from one in nine before the pandemic to one in six. A record 420,000 children are being treated for mental health problems. Between April and October last year, there was a 77 per cent rise in the number of children needing treatment for severe mental health crises such as suicidal thoughts, eating disorders and self-harm.
I teach in a girls’ school and it is girls who seem to be suffering worse. According to the Coalition for Youth Mental Health in Schools, by 17 nearly a quarter of young women in England have had a mental health disorder. Nearly a third of girls aged 16-18 have self-harmed.
The health system is not coping with the demand. In some places, schools report a waiting list of over a year for their students with severe symptoms to be seen by CAMHS, Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services. Some headteachers have resorted to employing their own counsellors — but even if they can afford them, there aren’t nearly enough to go around.
“When I started this job I wasn’t so concerned that a child in this school could commit suicide,” the head of safeguarding in an inner-city school tells me. “Now I think this could happen. This role is tough. This is a very hot potato and I’m holding it.”
The first and most obvious sign that teenagers are not coping is that they are absent — they are failing to come to school. In my Year 13 class there are 25 students, but the largest number who showed up for any lesson during the entire year was 22. Sometimes the roll was as low as 16.
Poor school attendance has been the most serious and lasting educational legacy of Covid; more than a year has passed since the end of lockdown and there is no sign of it returning to its pre-pandemic levels. In my school as a whole, attendance is much better than most, partly because of a policy of phoning home and, in extremis, sending around the minibus to get students out of bed. But the figure for secondary schools across England has fallen from about 95 per cent in 2019 to less than 90 per cent now. Attendance becomes worse as students get older and, even though there are no official data for Year 13, officials say the figure may be less than 80 per cent.
The government is scratching its head to work out what can be done nationally, but so far nothing is doing. During lockdown it told students that their health was more important than their education. It now needs to find a way of doing a reverse ferret and telling them education is really important after all. School is a habit. And for the children who need school the most, this habit is broken. I had a conversation with a girl in my tutor group about her poor attendance record. “Why should we come to school when during lockdown we taught ourselves?” she asked, reasonably enough.
When my sixth formers who are often absent do pitch up for lessons, they tell me they can’t focus on their work on account of their poor mental health. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this. On the one hand, the stigma around mental health has lifted and there is no longer much shame in discussing it. But on the other, the pandemic has greatly exacerbated what was already a rising tide of mental suffering among children — partly fuelled by the pernicious effect of being online all day and half the night. “Unrestricted use of social media has been like giving a bottle of vodka to a nine-year-old and saying: ‘Good luck,’” says Juliette Oakshett, a mental health consultant to a leading London private school.
Whatever its causes, most teachers are poorly equipped to deal with distress on this scale — there is almost nothing in teacher training that covers it. All I know is that if a student is obviously not eating or is self-harming, then I must report it at once to the school.
What is harder is knowing how to deal with the rest — the much larger group of teenagers who are not alarming enough to report but who seem subdued or anxious and don’t appear to be making a good fist of school life. According to a study reported in the BMJ (British Medical Journal), 29 per cent of students in the UK are “languishing” and one remedy that seems to work well with adults — mindfulness training — does not seem to help at all in a school setting.
My instinctive approach with my own students is to plough on regardless. One day I found myself telling the class that anxiety was a useful and necessary thing and, in any case, exams were meant to make them anxious. As I spoke, a chill went around the room. I felt cast as that most unattractive of things: a mental health denier.
Frequently students tell me that the amount of work I set is bad for their mental health. When I ring home to explain that six hours of work a week per subject is deemed necessary for students to succeed at A-levels, I often find parents are firmly on their children’s side. Their daughter is anxious, they say. I should get off their back. After every conversation like this, I wonder: aren’t parents likely to be right?
This changing attitude from parents seems to be a general feature of the post-Covid world — they can no longer be counted on to reinforce the message that school work is not optional. The deputy head of a school in the north of England told me: “We used to have parents onside. But now they just say; ‘She’s been through a lot.’” It’s hard not to sympathise — their children have been through a lot. But is that a reason for them missing school and not doing homework?
It’s not just the amount of work I set that is making students anxious. It’s the lessons themselves. Last year, I taught Year 7 students public speaking, insisting every child took a turn at the front, presenting to the class. One student found this so stressful she started to sob. Again I wondered: should I have let her off? In the US there is a student-led movement to outlaw compulsory class presentations, as they discriminate against students with anxiety. I’m pretty sure this is a disastrous path to go down. But the distress of an 11-year-old doesn’t feel right either.
I make an appointment to see the head of safeguarding at my school to discuss what I should do. She starts to tell me about trauma-informed teaching practice, according to which you treat every child as if they had suffered a trauma. This makes a lot of sense in my school, where 50 of the 1,500 children lost a close family member during the pandemic. But I want to ask if this means a general lowering of expectations, and whether this might be not a good thing. Our conversation is not a long one. In just six minutes she has been interrupted four times by calls about individual children. The final call is about something sufficiently grave that she has to stop talking to me and go and sort it out.
Schools everywhere have been surveying the distress of their students and wondering what to do. Should they be hard or soft? The school where I used to teach takes the hard approach: no excuses, uniformly high expectations and requirements of punctuality and homework so unforgiving that students have no choice but to comply. My current school has a gentler, more nuanced approach based on the wellbeing of individual students. Which is better? And how would we know?
It’s difficult, says Katharine Vincent, director of Reconnect London, an organisation set up to get the heads of schools in the capital talking to each other to help solve problems that affect all of them. “On one hand there is a need to prepare students for exams, while on the other we don’t want to contribute to existing mental health conditions. It’s not an easy balancing act, particularly given how stretched schools’ resources already are.”
One day at school I was delivering a PHSE (personal, social, health and economic education) lesson to my form group on mental health. This is something that all schools do and it serves an important purpose: it lessens the stigma of mental health and makes students who are unwell feel less alone.
In the course of the lesson, as successive students said they had anxiety, I started to feel uneasy. The lifting of the taboo may be great but all this self-diagnosis feels wrong to me. I fear the effect of my lesson merely added to the information they’d already gleaned from TikTok. If you type “anxiety” into the platform, the first video that comes up shows an attractive teenage girl saying that biting your fingernails and zoning out are signs that you have anxiety. More than 9mn people have watched it.
“There are two issues here that have got horribly tangled up together,” says Peter Fonagy, chief executive of the Anna Freud Centre, which offers treatment, training and research on child mental illness. “There are the students who are mentally ill who need help. And there are the students who are having a rotten time, are not coping well and who have diagnosed themselves as being unwell.”
Such self-diagnosis is making children more anxious and unhappy than they were already, he says. Worse still, avoiding the thing they are anxious about (school and exams) is the surest way to make the anxiety far worse.
“We need increased public awareness. But this needs to be coupled with understanding — which is currently very poor. What we have is not an epidemic of mental disorder.”
He thinks the biggest cause of the rise in numbers of children with probable mental illness comes from a change in interpretation. Doctors ask the same questions but patients, who are more aware of mental health, give different answers. This has not been entirely positive. “Anxiety and low mood and unhappiness are not illnesses. They are part of life. Students are struggling and need better ways of coping but do not have a medical problem. The ones who are unwell need to be packed off to counselling, but counselling will make the others worse.”
According to him it is not my role as a teacher to try to play the shrink to my students. “That’s my job,” he says. It is certainly not my job to go soft on students with anxiety. Instead, it’s my role to operate a predictable, well-run classroom with clear boundaries.
I say it is hard to do that when students are clearly miserable and telling me they have anxiety. What am I meant to do — ignore it? What if they do turn out to be seriously unwell and go on to harm themselves? He agrees this isn’t an easy position to be in.
“Teachers have been thrown to the dogs,” he says. “You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”
Despite this, I am reassured by our bracing conversation. I resolve to set firm boundaries, to listen to my students and to support them as they build up resilience.
Yet, at the same time, I suspect that there is something else going on for these teenagers that is adding to their anxiety levels, which has nothing to do with either self-diagnosis or Covid. The UK public exam system is set up to make them as anxious as possible.
I did my own A-levels 45 years ago, when there was no pressure on me from parents, school or bragging friends on social networks. But I still found it so stressful that for three decades afterwards I regularly woke at 3am drenched in sweat from a dream in which I had forgotten to revise for physics A-level, which in reality I never even sat.
It is far worse for these teenagers because the pressure has been amplified: both schools and individual teachers are judged by the grades their students get. As I chastise my A-level class for not working hard enough, am I thinking purely about them or am I trying to make myself look better as their results will also be mine?
If it is a teacher’s job both to help students pass exams and to acquire the grit to cope with the hard things that life throws at them, then on the latter score I have failed. I was so busy telling them that the exams mattered, in order to entice them to do some work, that I forgot to teach them something just as important: how to deal with disappointment. I only hope that my students don’t need this vital life skill too badly on results day.
Lucy Kellaway is an FT contributing editor and co-founder of Now Teach, an organisation that helps experienced professionals retrain as teachers
If you are struggling to cope or have been affected by anything in this story, you can contact the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. There is more information at mind.org.uk, samaritans.org and save.org
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