Is pupil mental health at risk from a focus on success? Alistair McConville in TES

Academic & Curriculum, Bedales Senior

In an article for TES, Alistair McConville Bedales Director of Learning and Innovation, assesses the extent to which pupil mental health is placed at risk by a focus on individual achievement, and proposes an alternative.

The school system prizes achievement above all else. But how many participants in it have lost sight of the purpose and pleasure of learning amid increased pressure to rise up the achievement rankings?

The late philosopher Mary Midgley argued that a neo-Darwinist narrative has an excessive grip on our collective consciousness: we are fundamentally selfish, neo-Darwinists argue, so it’s inevitable that we will act in selfish ways, primarily seeking our own advancement. Alistair says: “Many young people have bought the ‘myth’ that it’s all about them and their personal levels of accomplishment, and that somehow pursuing a path of individual achievement will lead to fulfilment.”

This, he says, is a particular danger during teenage years, when young people rebuild their self-image, heavily influenced by their peers but incorporating other types of feedback. They are especially susceptible to internalising labels and markers of achievement and giving them undue weight. This might work out well if they indicate that you’re clever and capable, but high-achievers can also succumb to a damaging sense of pressure to maintain expectations. Or, if a young person gets feedback that they are in the bottom quartile of their peer group, it can take a strong hold on their self-image. Mental health risks abound either way.

Education uses achievement systems that, by design, offer exactly this sort of dispiriting, demoralising feedback to large swathes of the adolescent population. The mass ranking and measurement exercise of external examination means that tens of thousands of young people must be told that they’ve failed every year.

Rather, says Alistair, “Young people need encouraging, formative, holistic feedback that helps them reflect on the sort of person that they are becoming, and which recognises that the development of character and dispositions is a life-long exercise – a more socially-inspiring model of achievement for our young people.”

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Alistair McConville | TES Magazine