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Health

How the British School System Fucks You Up

A study released yesterday suggested that the internet was affecting teenage girls' mental health—but what about the pressures we face at school, like exam stress, competitive kids, and fear-mongering sex education?
August 25, 2015, 12:30pm

Still from 'Heavenly Creatures.' It's set in New Zealand, not Britain, but they were schoolgirls and definitely fucked up (Miramax 1994)

"They say your school days are the best days of your life, but the only way that would be true for me would be if I went straight from school to prison and stayed there forever until I died." I imagine that this line, from the finale episode of The Inbetweeners, unfortunately rings true for a lot of people who've been through the British education system. Having recently left school at the age of 18, I can say that it certainly does for me.

A Guardian article published this week reported the findings of a survey carried out by Girlguiding on teenage girls' mental health. It highlighted the disparity between parents' concerns for their teenage daughters and the girls' own personal concerns. According to the survey, drug use, alcohol abuse, and unprotected sex—the worries that are at the forefront of parents' minds when it comes to their daughters—are less pressing issues for the girls themselves, whose primary concerns were self-harm, sexual harassment, and cyberbullying. One of the main reasons that parents don't understand what their kids are going through today, suggests another article published in response to the study, is that many of the problems center around technology and the internet that didn't exist when our parents were younger.

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However, the way I see it, most of the issues affecting young people amalgamate in or around school, a fact largely overlooked in the study. Last year, UK-based charity ChildLine released its review "What's affected children?", which revealed a "worrying rise in mental health concerns" among the young people who called in. It was in this review that school and education problems appeared in the top ten concerns for the first time. The review also found that there'd been a 200 percent rise in counseling sessions about exam stress since the previous year.

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As someone who's just left school, this pattern isn't at all surprising. Despite going to a school that sells itself as liberal, relaxed, and free-thinking, I observed several cases of students I knew in exam years drop out due to mental health issues, and many more suffer with mental health problems they didn't seek help for, including myself. This was not exclusive to my school; virtually all of my friends knew people who suffered poor mental health due to social issues within their schools, exam or homework-related stress, or the pressure of getting into university.

I spoke to Chris Leaman from the UK charity YoungMinds and he agreed with me that young people are increasingly feeling the heat: "We run a parents' hotline, which is for adults who are concerned about children and young people, and the exam period and when people are going back to school are peak times when our helpline takes lots and lots of calls. We spend our time teaching young people how to pass exams, but we don't teach them how to cope with the pressure of exams, or, when they're feeling under pressure, where they might go for help."

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I asked a sixth-form teacher, who wished to remain anonymous, for her thoughts on the matter: "In my experience, students feel they have two choices—the first is to 'play the game' and do their very best, as they feel this is how they will be judged as a person. This sometimes results in massive stress, especially if they tend towards perfectionism. Or they choose to 'opt out'—to refuse to play the game—either by truanting, illness, rebellion, or deliberate laziness. People who do this feel they will be judged entirely by performance and may feel angry at the education system, or believe that if they extend a lot of effort but still fail, then this will reflect a lack of ability."

In my experience, a lot of students tend to waver between these two poles, conflicted by pressure from both sides. School and parents want you to work hard so you can get into university, friends and fellow students provide the temptation of socializing, but are also competitors, and then there's the inner conflict of whether you should "play the game" or not. The internet—rather than being one of the reasons for my stress, anxiety, and insomnia—was often the only platform on which I felt I wasn't alone in my worries and could read about others' experiences of exam stress and poor mental health. It was reassuring to learn how they dealt with these pressures.

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My friends' experiences of school as teenagers echo my observation: "The mind-set of the school made it seem like 'failure' wasn't an option; all the systems that were in place were tailored to getting us into university," reflected one of my close friends, who suffered from depression and social anxiety. "They had a façade of care and concern, but I honestly think the only care about my wellbeing was rooted in whether or not my depression and anxiety would result in bad A-level result rankings for them."

This view of school as being apathetic when faced with students' mental health concerns is one shared by many of my friends who went to inner-city schools, art schools, and boarding schools alike. "Not enough students and parents are aware of the risks that school life poses to their mental health; they certainly should be," said the sixth-form teacher I interviewed.

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The modular system for GCSEs and A-levels, whereby the qualification is split between coursework—which is done throughout the school year—and a series of shorter exams, means that students go through public exams from the age of 15 until the age of 18 (and three more years if they go on to study at university until the age of 21). As much as it sounds like a cliche, surely someone in their later teenage years should be out there experiencing the "real" world or developing as a person rather than revising manically for stuff they will no doubt forget later on?

Even Michael Gove's new linear system, where students' final grades are based purely on timed exams at the end of two- or three-year courses, doesn't seem to offer much improvement in terms of stress factor. It means that pressure will be concentrated into the months preceding the summer exam season, and students will have limited options if their results are not what are expected as it becomes harder and harder to retake exams—something that further piles on the pressure.

"The problem with just switching to one form of testing or exams, is that different people excel at different things," says Chris Leaman, a spokesperson from the charity YoungMinds. "Some people thrive under the pressure of exams, but really struggle with the discipline that coursework takes, while others find exams extremely stressful, but are very capable of producing excellent work in a coursework system. I think what's important is the balance, so that you're testing all pupils, and allowing everyone to thrive."

As well as exam stress, a social life that revolves around school can create exacerbate issues. When I was in school, telling my friends about the sources of my stress and anxiety was cathartic, and socializing took my mind off it which helped a great deal. But often, other students were so competitive that they made me—someone who never put too much importance on grades—feel incompetent. It was spending time with these people that caused me even higher levels of anxiety about grades and exams.

As if the stress of upcoming tests, having frequent mood swings and being painfully unpopular weren't enough for me to deal with, my school took it upon itself to teach my schoolmates and I about sex, drugs, and other issues we were bound to face at some point in our adolescent lives in a wholly negative way. They insinuated that sex and drugs would lead us to become either diseased, injured, or dead—reminiscent of that over-quoted sex-ed scene in Mean Girls, in which the students are told, "Don't have sex. Because you will get pregnant, and die."

I understand that giving examples of amphetamine-induced seizures, grotesque close-ups of genital warts, and gory car crashes helps young people remember not to fuck up. But this one-sided approach takes its toll on the mental health of students as it creates negative associations with normal experiences such as sex and driving. Why do schools focus on fear-mongering when, instead, they could be teaching us how to deal with getting UTIs—an extremely common experience for women in particular when they first start having sex or change sexual partners? And, as the Girlguiding survey suggests, if teenage girls are worried about self-harm and cyberbullying, why are we not talking about these things more?

Anxieties about job prospects, anonymous abuse on social media, sexual harassment, and low body confidence are all relevant concerns for teenage girls like me, and were rightly reflected in the findings of the study reported on by the Guardian. However, if schools put more emphasis on implementing high quality pastoral care and creating platforms where young people felt safe in sharing their concerns, teenagers and their confused parents might not feel like they have to shoulder the problem alone. If we lightened academic pressure and the emphasis placed on exam results, then perhaps fewer young people would be suffering from stress and anxiety. It certainly would have helped me.