Why are so many children so unhappy at school?

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18 September 2015 by ATL
The 2015 Good Childhood Report comes to some chilling conclusions. Children in England were found to be among the most unhappy with their school life in the world.

And their dissatisfaction increased with age - starting from a low point of only 34% of 10- and 11-year-olds agreeing that they liked to go to school - falling to a disastrous 18% who would still agree that school was a place they wanted to be aged 12 and 13.

38% of children in England reported that they were bullied each month.  English girls were bottom of the international rankings in terms of happiness with their body confidence, appearance and self-esteem.

In a recent study by the NUT,  teachers expressed severe concerns about the mental health of young people, and in particular, of girls.

An experienced secondary school teacher wrote: "I have never known stress related conditions to be so prevalent in secondary education.

"Self harming is rife in KS4.  Last year... one was hospitalised for three  months in a  psychiatric ward following a suicide attempt, another very nearly starved herself to death and again was institutionalised for five months in a specialist eating disorder unit."

Teachers do their best to support and protect children and young people from the pressures of schools which are becoming unhealthily competitive.  External accountability pressures force schools to focus on exam passes.  Children and young people become commodities of the education system - their worth measured in their ability to pass timed, linear exams in a narrow range of academic subjects.

Teachers worry that they lose sight of the individual worth of their pupils, that they have less time to talk to them because of the pounding pressures of the school day (and evening, into the night working to mark books, fill in progress charts and complete all the admin that cannot be shoe horned in to excessive working hours).

The government's imposition of timed linear exams can only make the effect of these pressures worse.  At the same time the cuts to Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMS) leave many troubled and needy young people without the help they so desperately need.

All this might be justified if it prepared young people for working lives in the 21st century - but it does not.  John Cridland, Director General of the CBI has called for the abolition of GCSEs and the introduction of personalised learning plans for each pupil. Like teachers, the CBI is worried that schools are becoming exam factories - where exams determine what is taught and how, and where the broader skills needed for successful working lives - are being excised.

How can it be that speaking and listening is no longer part of the core assessment for English when the ability to communicate well is an essential 21st century skill?

Recently published research by Professor Jannette Elwood of Queens University Belfast with nearly 250 students from across England found that examinations structured through modules (and re-sits) allow for any mistakes to be made better and take the stress off having to do everything in one sitting.

Students thought that it was only fair to have a mixture of examinations and coursework because: “we don’t all like the same things”.

Professor Elwood found, also that students felt insulted at the annual circus of debates in the media around falling exam standards, which they saw as degrading their own achievements. They were also concerned that changes to examinations were being introduced “live”, rather than being piloted in advance, and felt their future successes might be “messed up” as a result. All of these changes could have considerable impact on their final grades and they argue this is too high a price to pay.

We need to listen more carefully to young people and to provide an education system which inculcates a life long joy of learning, rather than an exam treadmill.  The present exam system is unsustainable, and will become more so. Things will change eventually -  but enormous damage will have been done in the meantime.

Tagged with: 
Pupil welfare


My son was a victim of the Education system. A very intelligent boy, he was pressured into taking exam after exam. Despite me trying to relentlessly fight his corner with the school Principal (who's answer was like it or leave) he left the Academy that he went to with 19 GCSE's! He left school completely at 17, burned out but with these huge expectations of himself and feelings that he had no personal sense of achievement. At 19 years old on the 8 July this year he took his own life. He was a kind, caring and sensitive boy loved by all who knew him. He came from a loving and caring home. He had no record of mental health problems. This shouldn't have happened to him. We are all very sad and shocked by what has happened to my beautiful son. Do I blame our English Education? Yes, totally.

I'm so sorry about what happened to you and that a loving parent had to go through the most devastating thing one should ever have to bear. How many more will this happen to before someone listens.
Much Love.

I am so desperately sorry about you son’s tragic taking of his own life. This is an extreme example of the stresses and pressures we are so concerned about. Education should inculcate a life long interest in learning. It should not exhaust young people, both mentally and physically.
We will continue to make the case for a kinder, more fulfilling education system – one which nurtures and allows children and young people to grow in knowledge, skills and intellectual curiosity.

omg, so sorry to hear your story Karen. Such a tragedy, and one the education system must learn from.

Just goes to show that the whole system is flawed and serves to fuck up those with the slightest susceptibility to stress. The pressures on children are unacceptable. We need to stop treating children so homoginistically and look at their individual strengths and weaknesses. Teachers are so overworked nd those in the marble halls with their privileged velvet unhooked arse keep cracking the whip hard rd and hard rd without realising the human consequences of their ignorance.

School is a product of history not research. School will never be the answer. They can change it as much as they like it will always be 'failing'. School is free childcare because the government want everybody working and paying taxes. Raising children is not valued, humanity is not the priority, money makes the world go round. People place too much emphasis on school and education, they act as if the two are synonymous. Childrens wellbeing, emotional development and mental health should always come first. Children cannot learn if these needs are not met first. The way mainstream parenting and education is set up completely denies childrens autonomy, they are coerced and manipulated all the way into adulthood. Tbh the system probably works really well - for what it's meant for - churning out broken people into a world built on an internalised mental model of scarcity (capitalism) which thrives on competitiveness and nurtures an inner sense of unworthiness, a void we're always trying to fill with 'things' (materialism). Children are treated as 'things' who have no rights. No one else on earth could be treated as children are except maybe prisoners and people sectioned under the mental health act. In a world, and country, where children are still legally allowed to be hit and be cosmetically altered without their consent for no medical reason (MGM some might call it 'circumcision') how can you expect children to be happy?

Well said KarenD I agree with most of what you've written here!

I'm so sorry to hear about Karen's son. It's clearly wrong for young people to be put under such incredible pressure. I started teaching 16 years ago and the pressure on students has become more and more. We really do need to change the way we do things. I'm saddened that what should be a wonderful journey of self discovery should take such a terrible toll on young lives.

Powerful post and heart-wrenching comments. I'm in my 20s and not long ago caught myself researching retirement in order to know how long I'd have to be told what to do with my mind & time until I could be free. We've real issues and I can't add more to what's been shared here except, as part of my own self-reflections, I've written a little on what it felt like to go through our school system. If you're interested, here's the link: https://tackk.com/school-scenes Speaking out, as you're all doing so courageously here, is the first step to us finding ways to put people and human connections first in a system that has confused our right to learn, with the states right to teach and has turned our education into an emergency.