Education Reform – Mental Health, Examinations and Gavin Williamson

Featured image: Xingyue Huang via Unsplash

*Content warning: discussion of self harm and suicide

In year six, my academic cohort was the first to sit the new SATs, in year eleven we faced the new 9–1 GCSEs and in year thirteen we had new A-Levels and cancelled exams due to  Covid-19.

Our education system has long been run by old, white men who clearly do not understand the impact their policies have on students and teachers. Michael Gove’s legacy in 2015 was the loss of 50,000 teachers, which isn’t surprising when success is based on numbers and letters on a piece of paper. Our future is constantly jeopardised by ill-informed, knee-jerk decisions and legislation is passed that has no benefit to us. We have seen politicians like Nick Clegg lie to and manipulate students in an attempt to gain our vote, making false pledges on tuition fees, and the competitiveness of grammar school places means British children are the most examined and least happy in the world.

The same mistakes cannot keep being repeated, with each cohort barely scraping out alive. There have been countless, upsetting cases of A-Level students who have committed suicide because the pressure is too much to cope with, and wellbeing services are stretched to the limit. Some students have reported being on the CAMHS waiting list for over a year. From the age of eleven, the National Education Union found that 56% of pupils had, or been thinking of self-harming due to exam stress and the pressure to reach near-impossible standards. Many feel demoralised by their school, with league tables meaning even more pressure is placed upon children to perform well. Suggestions of policy ideas to introduce into the education system include scrapping 11+ exams, to reduce the unnecessarily high levels of anxiety placed on young children.

Mental health has been a difficult topic amongst university students too. A generation of children have been failed by our government ,  and will be under immense scrutiny for years to come. Graduate jobs are limited with just 18% of graduates securing jobs this year compared to the typical 60%. University students are continually ignored from lockdown guidelines, despite dealing with poor mental health (73% of students said their mental health declined during lockdown) and being blamed for the surge in cases. Perhaps increasing mental health budgeting for all schools and universities would allow students to feel included within a strong community, and know that there are trained professionals who can listen to their feelings. Many also argue that tuition fees should have been reduced during the pandemic to accommodate for the loss of learning.

For the cancellation of summer 2020 exams, resulting in unreflective centre-assessed grades riddled with bias, students are yet to receive an apology from the government. Many were left with no choice but to sit Autumn exams, after being out of school for seven months, with no teacher contact, no reduction of content and no regard for the impact that the pandemic has had on the mental health of young people. Students feel isolated and ignored by politicians and the media. This injustice could not simply be forgiven with the U-turn. Changing the university admissions process so that prospective students apply after they have received their A Level results would, some argue, be an effective policy change which if adopted in the future would reduce bias within the application process.

The situation is equally concerning with regards to assessment, too. The 2021 academic cohort have not received consistent guidance as to how they will be assessed this summer, just like my 2020 peers. Students feel as though their revision efforts have been wasted on a system which does not value them, but which places numbers and restricted statistics of success over young human lives. Teachers are under increased pressure, trying to keep up with constantly changing education news.  In just one week, the government updated the school opening guidance 41 times. It is objectionable amongst students that education ministers like Gavin Williamson, who are not active within the school system, are pretending to know what is right for students, better than teachers themselves. Despite low morale, poor pay and no clear communication strategies, our teachers are working to help children succeed without access to electronic equipment, or difficult home learning environments.

With the recent education news reporting on government proposals for longer school days and shorter holidays, we must ask ourselves why the government - and Gavin Williamson in particular- keep making poor, rash decisions regarding children’s learning. Longer days are counterintuitive, with many children struggling with their concentration with the current length of the school day (8am to 4pm), meaning it is therefore likely that this policy will lead to a decrease in productivity. It has been proven that forcing children to stay focused on overwhelmingly academic content is largely ineffective. Instead, it can be argued that a focus on arts, sports and activities outside of the core subjects can be a huge step to help children feel happy and healthy, to learn how to deal with conflict, improve their memory and be part of a team.

Our education system in England, and the politicians who choose to represent teachers and students, need to do better to create policies that encourage students to pursue their passions and develop in a healthy environment. I believe the only way to do this is through a radical reform of our broken British education; one led predominantly by students and teachers, over politicians.