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The Mental Health Price of Academic Focus

I feel that there are potentially major psychological implications for children as they are growing into adults. And that has potential implications for the lives that they lead once they become adults.

I am worried about the education we provide to the children in this country. I am worried because two of my daughters are going through it already and I don't like what I see. I am worried because of my own negative experiences of secondary education. And I am worried because of the apathy some children experience towards their education.

I feel that there are potentially major psychological implications for children as they are growing into adults. And that has potential implications for the lives that they lead once they become adults.

My two eldest daughters attend a local primary school and are just approaching their first big educational hurdle - Year 2 SATS. As they have gone through their infant schooling, I have seen how the changing emphasis from the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) curriculum to the Key Stage 1 curriculum, has sucked any joy from school and learning, leading to problems.

They have supposedly 'optional' homework and reading that eats up precious time in the evenings and weekends for family activities. The orientation of the lessons is highly focused on literacy and numeracy. And now they are going to be formally tested. Of course these are the things that the school is judged upon; by parents, potential parents, Ofsted, and the community as a whole.

The UK sends its children into formal education much earlier than most other European countries, theoretically in the search for academic results. But actually in those countries where that formal education is delayed in lieu of learning through play, better long term academic results are achieved. Countries such as Norway and Sweden. Early formal education is misguided logic.

Later educating countries also happen to have the higher levels of happiness in the international index. Is there any causal relationship between education and happiness? I have to wonder. Does the pursuit of academic achievement neglect the social and emotional development that is key to eventually leading happy and fulfilled lives?

My experiences of secondary school also influence my thoughts. I went to a very academic secondary school and there was a huge amount of competition between all the pupils. Results were highly prized and there was very little attention paid to the value of other activities and skills. Results may be part of what people build their lives on, but they are not everything.

I dragged myself through the last bit of secondary school with a dose of (undiagnosed) depression. I achieved good A-level results, but I didn't translate them into a positive, proactive life that belonged to me. That has come after recovery, counselling and self-learning. High achieving children, under pressure, are at higher risk of mental health issues, such as depression and eating disorders.

And on the other side of the equation are the disillusioned children for whom education is something to hate and attempt to escape, with school truancy and apathy towards education and participation in society, because they are not engaged with their learning. Either way we are creating long term problems of detached people.

What is education supposed to be for our children? Too much emphasis seems to be put on to the achievement of results and the search for 'success'. We need to change from making judgements based on results.

In my mind success is the ability to support your living, the ability to self-determine your direction, having satisfaction from how you live your life, being engaged with your community. Being able to deal with the problems that life throws at you. These are extremely hard to measure and only proven after the completion of education rather than during it.

I recently watched a discussion about measurable, learnable wellbeing skills hosted by Richard Davidson from the Centre for Healthy Minds that was live streamed. Resilience and attention, empathy and kindness, mindfulness and self-awareness, creativity and curiosity. These are the positive skills that I want my children to learn, that I would hope can help them live successful lives.

Obviously school is not the only place that this can or should be provided, but it is the most consistent resource for this across the country. I do what I can at home, I hope. But education needs to stop focusing so myopically on academic results and start helping children learn wellbeing skills to avoid negative mental health impacts that can affect children for the rest of their lives.

I blog at The Filling Glass, and you can find me on Twitter and Facebook.

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