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The impact of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ education system
Clinical Psychologist and mother, Dr Hayley Smith, shares her concerns about how the current education system is failing children.
Dire new data from England’s Department for Education this week showed that almost a quarter of pupils in England, or 1.6 million children, were ‘persistently absent’, missing 10 per cent or more school sessions in 2021-22 – over double pre-pandemic levels. Clearly prolonged school closures sent the message that in-person school was an optional benefit, but there is more at play here. The recent rise of ‘TikTok’ children’s school protests also suggests that all is not well within our school system.
Broken Custodians runs occasional articles from those who have a unique insight into important issues facing our children and young people. Below, Clinical Psychologist and mother, Dr Hayley Smith, shares her concerns about how the current education system is failing so many of our children.
Every day, in both my clinical practice and amongst my children’s friends, I hear stories of children who are distressed by their experiences of school – many of whom are traumatised, developing mental health problems as a result, and end up opting out of school one way or another. This includes children who would rather die than go to school: children who feel so anxious daily and have such a negative sense of self that life doesn’t feel worth living. Sadly, these are not just isolated incidents.
Education directed by central government does not work for teachers or pupils
Schools are micromanaged by central government, coerced and controlled through Ofsted inspections, threats of school closures, in-house politically-biased training and government reports. Training and government guidelines around teaching methods and behaviour management in schools are based upon hand-selected, outdated behaviourist approaches and basic cognitive science research (mainly tested in labs) to fit with political ideology. Regular testing set to central government expectations means that children are constantly compared to their peers, with frequent talk of children being ‘behind’ or labelled as ‘naughty’ if they do not conform to a set of expectations around behaviour and academic targets at set ages. Using standardised testing as a way of measuring quality of teaching or children’s ability is based on the assumption that all children should be at the same stage at the same time. However, this does not align with what we know about child development and neuroscience.
Our education system has not responded to our evolving knowledge of child development
Children’s brains develop at different ages and stages until they are well into their twenties; they do not all fit into tick boxes at certain ages or year groups. Children who develop at different rates are led to believe they do not measure up. In addition, we know children learn in different ways. Some are visual learners, some learn through doing and some learn through discussion. Some children have good memory recall and are adept at regurgitating information for tests, and some have brains that find this extremely difficult. Yet today’s schooling is based on the underlying assumption that all children learn the same way, primarily through reading and writing, and that testing through written exams is the best method of finding out what they have learnt.
What we know about children is that they are born with tendencies to grow and master challenges, with a natural motivation to learn. We know from research that movement and regular breaks (including time after school, at weekends and during school holidays rather than filling this time with homework) support processing, concentration and memory. Additionally, evidence shows that children learn best under certain circumstances: when they have a personal interest in the subject, are engaged through fun and play, feel safe and not anxious, are comfortable in their environment, have positive relationships and feel connected to others and are intrinsically motivated by being given choice and autonomy.
The current system leaves many children feeling controlled, inadequate and excluded
Many of the children I see have labelled themselves as failures. Many are punished and socially isolated for communicating unmet needs through their behaviour. Being constantly compared and tested, children are very anxious about getting a question wrong, measuring their whole worth on a test or exam result. The message they are given is that they will fail in life if they fail their exams.
Detentions and the naming and shaming of children on public behaviour charts reinforce this negative message. Behaviour points and isolations are dished out left, right and centre for not sitting facing forwards or not ‘tracking’ the teacher’s eyes, for dropping a pen, moving about too much, talking to peers, moving out of line, being one minute late for class, not being able to complete a piece of homework, having the incorrect coloured socks for P.E. or simply having a bad day. On top of this, many schools also control children’s toilet use – denying them this basic human right by only unlocking loos at breaktimes.
The current system also takes the focus off children’s individual needs and preferences, making it far from inclusive. This approach puts teachers and schools under enormous unnecessary pressure, taking the pleasure out of learning and teaching, and causing staff burnout.
The system needs to change
Our ‘one-size-fits-all’ education system with unrealistic targets, a bloated curriculum and teaching methods that don’t consider the psychological and individual needs of children is a key reason that large numbers of teachers are leaving the profession and record numbers of children are out of school and a significant contributing factor to the burgeoning mental health crisis amongst children and young people, with statutory and private mental health services overwhelmed, and staff burnt out trying to help.
The cause is systemic and won’t change until the whole system changes radically. This doesn’t mean reviewing certain aspects of the system, or only considering children with SEN, nor does it mean allocating more money or mental health workers to schools. Rather, it involves a radical change in our thinking, with consideration of ALL children and the education system as a whole. It means central government handing back the control over the education system to teachers and local authorities, providing teachers with independent, good-quality, up-to-date teacher training and giving them the autonomy to teach in a child-centred way – without being controlled by Ofsted, working on behalf of whichever government is in power.
The children I see don’t need therapy, they don’t need pathologising, labelling or ‘fixing’ so that they can survive school – they need the government to listen and change the status quo. We all need to wake up to this and ACT now, as every day is a day too many.
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