This is not going to be a pleasant post. I have to say I am still shocked by what I have been reading and was not at all sure that I wanted to post it. Then I thought that there is nothing more relevant to a call for a humane education than the results of recent surveys amongst teachers and school leaders. The statistics for self-harm and suicide are going up for school age children everywhere that universal compulsory schooling is the law. In this post I want to reflect soberly on this fact and consider what the options might be.
If you do not trust me, I’d like to encourage you to read two UK newspaper articles. This one is in the Telegraph, a famously right-wing newspaper:
It says that the key problems are exam pressure, too much homework and cyber bullying.
This one is in the Independent, which focuses on exam stress as one of the components of a shocking rise in depression, self-harm and suicide attempts.
And this one is an Amercian site that shows us the problem is not just here. It includes the shocking statistic that for every successful suicide attempt there are 50-200 attempts.
I was drawn to look at the figures by an English Chinese friend who is staying with us in the village. She told me that the Hong Kong government was introducing emergency measures after there were four successful suicide attempts in the space of a week. We looked it up. Apparently 10 000 school age students tried suicide between October 2015 and April 2016. The top cause of death amongst Hong Kong young people is “intentional self-harm.” She told me that Hong Kong is even more crazy than the UK. Children are sent to after-school clubs where they are compelled to study more to get more and better exam passes. They completely miss out on their childhood.
Young Minds– youngminds.org.uk- meanwhile estimates that 80 000 children in the UK suffer from severe depression, 215 000 suffer from conduct disorder and 70 000 suffer from ADHD. This is deeply unsettling. The brute total of children that have some kind of “disorder” is almost 10% of the total child population of the UK. And these are only the children that are crying out for attention. There must be many more who have the resilience to put up with all of the nonsense that is shoved their way and do not slide off into depression, aggression or defiance. The fact that you can endure it does not make it good or healthy.
The official reason that this situation needs to continue is that children need the results that they are working towards in order to get on in their lives. I have been a teacher and find this argument entirely specious. There is very little you learn at secondary school in the UK that you could not miss out on completely and pick up when you need it at a later stage in your life. Why are children being forced to sacrifice their childhood to do this much schoolwork? Why are children not allowed to play as much as they want to? You may think Summerhill is one step too far, but at the very least you must accept that the precious baby you held in your arms deserves better than to have his childhood squandered on the inane nonsense of schoolwork. Most teachers are ordinary people trying to get on with their own lives. They often go to school with the depressing feeling that what they are doing is not making any difference. The whole standards debate in a system that is so cock-eyed seems absurd.
I am looking at statistics and jumping to conclusions. Many school leaders say that the problem is not their schools as such. The problem is that they do not have mental health professionals in sufficient number to make a difference. How does that sound to you? Does it make any sense to continue playing the same damaging game with a couple of extra stretcher-bearers in the wings to drop in and give people emergency treatment when they can’t take it? To me it sounds like trying to put out a raging fire with an eye-dropper.
One of the other issues that drives children to suicide is the rise in cyber-bullying. Bullying of any kind is noxious. Does our bullying state with its exacting but non-sensical requirements do anything more than provide a model of what it is to be intolerant, aggressive and confrontational? How can you possibly expect to get around the problem of bullying when it is so deeply systemic in the structures of the schools? What power do children have to confront and overcome difficulties?
I can’t help but feel that some kind of open forum, modelled on the Summerhill Meeting perhaps, but tailored for each specific school and environment, would help schools to tackle the problems in mental health that are facing children today. I don’t mean a student council that discusses problems and issues that the management team of the school allow them to. I mean a real kick-ass meeting where people can be brought up and fined, where laws can be made and where everyone is equal in the community.
This is an incoherent post and I apologise for that. The fact that children are taking their lives because they are so miserable appals me. Reading suggestions to get your child into the health services as quick as possible when you think they might have a conduct disorder just makes me want to scream. I looked up conduct disorder and I found that there are no specific tests to diagnose a conduct disorder. This means that a conduct disorder just means someone not doing what they are told. It is awful.
What if we just told all those children that they were right?
“Yes, you are right,” we would say. “School really is as bad as you think it is. We don’t know what we are doing with it. Why don’t you do something better. We trust you. You can grow up and be happy without all of this.”
But most of all we want you to think with your heart not your head, so put down the pen, put away the books and go outside for a while.
Would children with conduct disorders have any kind of disorder if they weren’t in school?
Would children with freedom to play be depressed?
Would children with the option to go to lessons or not be so stressed by exams that they were driven to suicide?