It all started with a phone call during half term week. It was Alex ringing from Plymouth to tell me he had had a panic attack. At first I couldn’t quite get my head around this … the boy who is so horizontal he is nearly comatose? The boy who has avoided many a confrontation by just not doing things he thinks are pointless (registration in sixth form being a key example!)? All is well now but during our conversations it became apparent that multiple departments had set multiple pieces of coursework all with a due date within 2 weeks. The sheer impossibility of the task facing him had tipped Alex over into not coping. But what really threw me was when Alex mentioned that several housemates had been struggling with stress and anxiety for some months and indeed some were on anti-depressants.
In all walks of life there seems to be an assumption that there is always a possibility of “more for less”. Zero hours contracts allow workers to be seen as units of work rather than people, requiring a living wage is seen as an unreasonable demand. The message from the world of work seems to be that you can always do more and therefore be more efficient. Whilst this is unacceptable for adults – we now appear to extending this message into schools.
The new National Curriculum being introduced in September expects final year primary pupils (Aged 10/11) to hit many targets which are currently part of the Secondary curriculum. In maths this will include multiplication and division of fractions as well as algebra for all. Whilst we already teach beyond this for children who are ready, this will be the expected standard and those who cannot meet it will be deemed to not be “secondary ready” – in other words to have failed. But worse than this, with the goalposts constantly changing (look at the GCSE/A Level scenario in recent years) – we risk setting up a situation where it is not possible for the majority to succeed.
Putting Alex’s student house into context, around 1/3 of a house full of intelligent, high functioning young adults are being put under sufficient pressure to affect their mental health. We risk beginning this process much earlier when there is even greater vulnerability. All children should be challenged and fulfilled – but that level of challenge needs to be individual to the child – not arbitrarily set by central government.