‘How many mental health issues are caused by force-feeding children a curriculum ill-suited to their individuality?’

A provocative title, no doubt, but an important question.

The article that asks (and doesn't really answer) the question is written by Colin Harris, a headteacher who believes in educating the whole child - instilling a love of learning and developing moral as well as academic skills and attitudes.

I think a lot of us could sign up to that kind of belief - I hear from a lot of teachers who regard their most important work to be the stuff that gets the least recognition, time and training, such as pastoral work. I imagine, too, that a lot of us ask ourselves the kind of question Colin asks: does the education system I'm a part of have harmful effects? Is the increasing pressure and regimentation we are implementing in our schools causing the rising incidence of mental health issues in children?

These are not idle questions. There's a real problem with childhood mental health right now - barely a day goes by without a new piece of research into this. But what's the point, I've been asked, of having beliefs about a more human education system if we can't put it into practice? And what's the point of noticing the harmful effects of an economically-driven education system if we can't change it? We don't make the rules, so thinking about them or their impact is just a waste of time, I've been told.

And on one level I'd agree. Realising that the system you are a part of is potentially harmful can increase the stress and pressure in an already pressurised job. It can be very useful to ignore this and carry on regardless, pouring what energy you have left into mitigating the effects of the system - into being as warm and human and loving as you can within the constraints of the system. This is an approach I'm very familiar with, having taken it for much of my teaching career.

But on another level there is a problem with this attitude: it gives up hope in our own ability to make a broader positive change. It takes for granted that we who work at the chalk-face have to absorb and accept what comes down from on high. Not only does this leave us ever-more vulnerable to being exploited and imposed-upon, it also means we are potentially letting down precisely those who need protecting by us: the children we teach. 

Regardless of your particular beliefs about education, childhood and teaching, this powerlessness we are coming to expect and accept of ourselves helps no-one.