Chris King: Avoiding the rabbit hole

17 April 2016
Posted by Heidi Salmons

The Sunday Times, 17.04.16, HMC Chair Chris King, headmaster of Leicester Grammar School outlines HMC's initiatives to further improve the wellbeing and resilience of pupils in all schools ahead of the "Good Mental Health in Schools - What Works?" Spring Conference at the British Library on 28th April 2016.

An anxious sixth-former (let’s call her Emma) recently agreed to record her experiences for a good mental health in schools conference which the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference is organising with The Sunday Times and state school leaders. Her words, while familiar, are a wake-up call for us all.

“I think I’ve got an unhealthy expectation of myself,” she said. “Everyone seems sorted except me. I get stressed because I want to do well. I want to be successful and it’s a shame if that has to come at the cost of being stressed out all the time, having to work late nights, having to do every sport, do every activity because that’s what top universities want you to do; be a ‘well-rounded individual’.

“I feel like I’ve just got to keep going and going down this rabbit hole all the time, I’ve just got to get there eventually.”

Her image of plunging down a rabbit hole is particularly telling, reminding us of Alice being propelled into an unfamiliar world full of pitfalls and scary people.

Endless reports tell us that today’s teenagers are increasingly overwhelmed by the pressures they feel to succeed in life. There is no doubt that we — parents, teachers, friends — must come to their assistance with both urgency and imagination. Old approaches and attitudes need to be updated, and that’s why I have used my year as chair of an association of leading independent school heads to focus on further improving the wellbeing and resilience of pupils, not just in our schools but all schools.
To do so, we need information, which is why I have commissioned a series of surveys to understand the causes, effects and most effective solutions to the pressures being felt by all pupils. We also need training, which is why HMC is pioneering a new professional qualification in pastoral care. This is sensitive and difficult territory. It is easy for those who dislike independent education to jump on this as evidence of either hothousing or mollycoddling. But both are lazy stereotypes.

The pastoral care provided by HMC schools is second to none but we know there is more to do, and the first thing is to listen, very hard. To the experts, as we are doing in our upcoming conference. To families, as we increasingly open up our schools to parent events and courses. But most of all to the young people who we care for and teach.

As Natasha Devon, the government’s mental health champion who is speaking at our conference, says, young people need to be able to tell us their problems and be empowered to help find practical and relevant solutions. There are fantastic innovations happening in our schools — and in others — that encourage peer-to-peer learning, creative expression and the co-creation of practical tools to calm and focus the mind. I am determined to find this best practice and share it as widely as possible.

But I must strike a note of caution. Teachers are busy teaching, caught up in their own maelstrom of ongoing and large-scale changes to the education system. We are not trained counsellors or therapists. For schools to be places where young people are happy, healthy and positively challenged, where early warning signs of mental health difficulties are picked up and serious problems dealt with effectively, we must have help.

Parents — and I am one of them — need to keep a sense of perspective and try not to transmit our anxieties on to our children. We know social media can be a constant distraction, that the world is a competitive place and our offspring need stand out from the crowd. But HMC’s exam stress survey shows that pupils are piling pressure on themselves in no small part to please their parents. We have to break that vicious circle.

Russell Group universities who are demanding higher and higher entry grades should consider the weight this is placing on pupils’ shoulders. I understand is more difficult for them to discriminate at the top as more students are achieving As and A*s, but it’s no wonder students are stressed if they think 3 As isn’t enough for their chosen course.

And schools? Well, there’s no question that wellbeing has gone to the top of many agendas. The vast majority of HMC schools have the independence and resource to maintain direct access to professional counsellors and other staff, develop new wellbeing initiatives, keep a thriving co- curricular programme and actively work with the best outside experts. But we must be sure to practice what we preach; challenge, encourage and even prod a little, but not add to unhelpful levels of stress that some pupils are piling on themselves.

Finally, for Emma and her peers, there is good news. Many universities are accepting lower than their initial offer and they don’t really want the perfect all-round students. In fact, that person probably doesn’t exist. Some want students who are simply focused on their subject, others care much more about outside experience. It’s a question of finding the right pace for you. Similarly, the competition culture encouraged by social media isn’t quite what happens in the “real” world of work, in which we all have to accept each others’ weaknesses as well as strengths.

Parents just want you to be happy. And, far from swanning along, everyone else is feeling the same way as you.

Chris King is headmaster of Leicester Grammar and chairman of HMC

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