Schools’ Commitment to Wellbeing for Girls by @shazstead

Behind the Selfie-Stick Smile

I’m a mother first, teacher second. But it was as both of these that my heart sank at the recent removal of Natasha Devon as mental health champion for schools. I teach in an independent school so Devon’s ousting won’t affect our relatively enlightened approach to pupil wellbeing. But what a message it sends out to the nation as to how we value good mental health, surely educators’ most fundamental obligation – at a time when self harming is up 70% in two years and 48% of 11-14 year old girls avoid some school activity due to hating the way they look *.

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Sharon Stead and published with kind permission.

The original post can be found here.

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As one pundit recently put it ’Education is too one-dimensional to cope with the complexities of being human’. We can’t just expect children to ‘get through it’ like we did. They are not like we were. Yes, I did spend some of my youth in front of Little House on the Prairie with a Waggon Wheel while my mum went out to work. It didn’t verge on the child abuse and I survived without PTSD. Yes I did have a few detentions once; I was embarrassed, but not broken. Yes I spent summer holidays not on the Algarve but in our damp caravan with my sister, the dog and a packed lunch. We learned how to tell imaginative stories and make gloriously messy lemonade. Yes, I did get a D in Maths and had to redo it before achieving the heady delights of a C. It didn’t stop me pursuing an academic career, albeit not as an accountant. Today, it’s a completely different world. The demands on our youth are quite terrifying and their fear of getting it wrong greater than ever.

I worry for our daughters. Some of them seem to have every hour in the day spent in structured activity. Tutored to the point where they can’t think for themselves anymore they suffer performance anxiety, body image issues (what is this obsession 13 year olds have with big lips? 13) and friendship anxiety, fuelled by social media obsession feeding a whose-got –the-most friends/best party/coolest boyfriend/straightest hair/highest results paranoia.

This is not exclusively a female issue, of course. My 14 year old son recently had experience of a friend of his taking his own life. I’m not about to go into the details – I don’t even know all of the details – suffice to say it shook the community to its core and so it should.

We all want happiness first for our children, don’t we? Or if that’s too nebulous – a contentendness, a peace within themselves. What parent would value 12 A*s over that? Yet it is the latter by which society continues to judge our schools and our children. Schools whose mission statements rate wellbeing as a priority generally maintain that this does not come at the expense of excellent results – they would wouldn’t they? But where does this leave our children? Once again, the pressure is on them to excel academically as well as the playing field, the debating chamber, the art studio, the  orchestra pit – all with a with a selfie-stick smile on their face that says ‘I’m a girl and what I do best is to please everyone’.

If my daughter was 10 and I was looking for a school now, I would be asking: How will you help me as a mother bestow the skills of being resilient and strong; of having values, imagination, grit, emotional intelligence, problem solving, creativity, people skills, honesty, loyalty, integrity? I would really push for specific examples. The overarching philosophy needs to be there of course, but until the Government puts wellbeing back on the agenda, I would want the details. What is the questioning policy and practice in the classroom? How is marked work fed back? How do girls play to their own strengths in the classroom? Where are the opportunities for girls to take risks? How does the joined up thinking work so that girls are not overloaded? How do you manage the provision of the academic with their overall co-curricular opportunities? How do you check in on girls wellbeing? How do you know they are as happy as is possible for a teenage girl to be? And I’d be lobbying the Government like crazy.

* The Guardian ‘Teachers have to be therapist one moment, social worker the next’ 31 May, 2016

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