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Our Schools Have Become Exam Factories - Which Is Bad for Children, Bad for Education and Damaging to Our Mental Health

30/04/2015 17:56 BST | Updated 30/06/2015 10:59 BST

We are at the start of the exam season - a period of maximum stress for families across the country. Is this desirable? No. Is it damaging? Yes.

Today's children are relentlessly examined, a practice that puts them under "vile, cruel pressure", according to Sir Anthony Seldon, former head of Wellington College, where my own children went to school. He is one of Britain's most far-sighted educationists, and he says we have done "terrible things" to the next generation by making them believe the only validation of their worth is their ability to pass exams.

A child's emotional health is the best predictor of whether the adult they grow into will be satisfied with their life - far more important than their academic achievement. One in ten children under 18 has a diagnosable mental illness - mainly anxiety, depression or conduct disorder - which casts a long shadow over their lives.

Schools occupy a key role in protecting the mental health of children. Every parent wants their child to be happy but too often schools do not see the production of happy adults as their prime objective.

Increasingly schools have become exam factories. Yet if children are happy they do better academically. A survey of 200 programmes put in place by schools to enhance the social and emotional skills of their pupils found they also increased their academic scores by 10 per cent.

We need to shift the focus so that schools follow the example of Wellington College, which introduced wellbeing classes in 2006, and address the emotional and spiritual needs of children as well as their intellectual development.

Last week (23 April), the 2015 World Happiness Report called on schools to make the wellbeing of their children a key objective. This is the third in the series produced by the UN's Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which ranks countries according to their "gross national happiness", a more human measure than the usual economic indicator "Gross Domestic Product."

It includes recommendations presented at the World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH), which I chair, that every school must have a wellbeing code of behaviour - to include anti-bullying and mutual respect - and that they must measure the wellbeing of their children and provide help to those in distress. Where children are only assessed on their intellectual performance that will always take precedence. If you treasure it, measure it.

Professor Richard Layard, the distinguished economist and leading authority on the mental health of children is a lead author of the World Happiness Report (and of the WISH report) which calls for explicit teaching of life skills, sustained throughout the child's school life.

Children need to understand and manage their own emotions, be sensitive to others and care for them. They need to learn about mental disorders and what can be done about them and choose positive goals. That cannot be done in one or two 20-hour programmes, which is the typical provision.

When children in distress are identified, swift help is vital. There has been a revolution in treatment over the last 30 years with the development of cognitive behaviour therapy and other methods, and recovery rates from anxiety and depression are over 50 per cent. But despite the recent expansion in therapists we need many more, including at least one centre of excellence for each region.

If children are given the right start they are far more likely to thrive and grow into secure, grounded adults. As they do so, they will have access to one avenue of help denied to previous generations: their mobile phones. They provide an unprecedented opportunity to deliver personal help and support.

People may object that this is costly. But the cost of doing nothing will be measured in blighted lives and rising rates of crime, drug taking and suicide. That is an outcome no society can afford. To avoid it, we must act now.

Lord Darzi is a surgeon, director of the Institute of Global Health Innovation at Imperial College London, and Executive Chair of the World Innovation Summit for Health. He was a Labour health minister from 2007-9.