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Dr Frances Maratos, Associate Professor and Reader in Emotion Science, University of Derby

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Celebrating #UniversityMentalHealthDay (5 Mar), Dr Frances Maratos, Associate Professor and Reader in Emotion Science @DerbyUni puts the case forward that the UK education system needs to change to encourage greater health and wellbeing:

The UK education system – have we got it wrong?

In terms of the health and well-being of our pupils and teachers, the UK education system is arguably nearing breaking point.

Recent reports reveal that up to 54% of teachers state theirjob ‘often’ or ‘always’ impacts negatively on their mental and/or physicalhealth (OFSTED, 2019).

For pupils, the statistics are much worse.

One in ten primary aged children, and one in seven secondaryaged pupils suffers from a mental disorder. Over the past 15 years, in realterms, this equates to a 15% increase in pupils receiving an official diagnosis(NHS, 2018). So, what is causing this negative mental health spiral in the UKeducation system?

The security of competition

A lack of funding and investment, pressures on resources,and increasing pupil numbers are of course part of this problem. However, alsocontributing to the pressures pupils and teachers face – and endemic within theUK system – is the focus on insecure competition. Yet insecure competition issomething we can change.

Imagine I want you to achieve the best you can in a newsport – let’s pick running. Every day I work on your technique and provideexcellent tuition and coaching. On a weekly basis I measure your performance bymaking you run a race. Good so far, right?

What I haven’t told you is that each week you’ll becompeting against the fastest man in the world (let’s say Usain). I now havetwo ways of presenting feedback to you. Week after week, I can tell you how youdid in comparison to Usain, and guess what, week after week, you lose. Or, Ican simply focus on your own progress and present you with your finish times. Sometimesyou don’t do too well, but generally your performance improves over the weeks.

Too many times time we put our pupils and teachers in the former situation. We measure teachers and schools by how they perform compared to other schools (the often anxiety-provoking OFSTED report). And we measure pupils by how they perform compared to all other children of their age, and we do this from the age of 6!

This is insecure competition.

Learning from negatives

Too often in the UK education system we create environmentsthat can lead to feelings of shame, criticism, guilt and threat; factors that contributeto poor mental health and increase vulnerability to psychological disorders.

Too little in the UK education system do we create theopposite. That is, environments that are safe, secure and allow children tolearn from failure without negative repercussions. This is secure competition.

We put teachers and pupils in environments that promotesocial incohesion and believe it is beneficial. We put our children in directcompetition with each other and expect them to thrive. We put our teachers andschools in direct competition with each other and expect that this will resultin a high-performance culture. But it doesn’t. The above statistics reveal thatsubjecting pupils and staff to repeated insecure competition isn’t working.

Encouraging cohesion

To create an education system in which pupils thrive andteachers remain motivated, we need to create classroom environments wherechildren feel safe, and secure competition is encouraged. We need to create aneducation system where schools and staff do not live in fear of performancemetrics. Rather, to thrive, our pupils and teachers need a system thatencourages safety, feelings of security and social cohesion.

But is there any proof for such an approach? In a simple answer, yes, Estonia.

Pupils in Estonia outperform pupils in England massively. In2016, global tests revealed 15-year-old Estonian pupils ranked 3rdfor science and 6th for reading (UK pupils ranked 15th and22nd respectively). InEstonia, however, the focus on early years education is making children ‘schoolready’ – this includes both socially and emotionally. This is a world away fromthe UK, where at age 6 we put our children in formal testing situations andprint each school’s results in a national league table, something Estonia doesnot do.

More strikingly, in Estonia children are not grouped bylevel of ability. As one Estonian teacher has reported to the BBC: “If youteach them (children) by different levels of ability, you segregate them. Whywould we do that in schools?”

Indeed, what greater way of encouraging social incohesion thansegregating children?

Although, you don’t just have to take my word for insecurecompetition being a bad thing.

Strikingly, Ong Ye Kung, Singapore’s Education Minister, hasabolished exams for primary aged pupils in years 1 and 2.


Because, he states simply: “Learning is not a competition”.

Dr Frances Maratos, Associate Professor and Reader in Emotion Science, University of Derby

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