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Bad Education



The key problems:

Three-quarters of people who have mental health problems in working life first experienced symptoms in childhood or adolescence.

For children and young people, there’s not just exam pressure and insecurities around body image, but also the risks of social media … not to mention the bullying and harassment that occurs outside of a social media context. Research from a respected mental health charity (Mind) suggests that one in five young adults in the UK will end up crying in any given week because of stress and anxiety.

It’s therefore no surprise that when the UK Youth Parliament recently voted to choose their priorities for the year ahead, nearly one million young people chose ‘curriculum for life’ and ‘compulsory mental health education’ as two of their three most important aims.

Of course the best way to prevent the escalation of mental health problems into acute and/or chronic conditions is to identify and work with these problems early, and to teach children and young people the emotional and psychological skills and knowledge that can greatly help them to maintain their well-being.

Yet currently, one in four people will suffer a mental health problem at some time in any given year (with anxiety and depression being the most common), not least the more than 53,000 people in Britain – the highest number ever recorded – who were detained last year under the Mental Health Act.[1]

Moreover, the majority of bio-physical illnesses are caused by obesity[2], smoking and excessive drinking: lifestyle problems which (together with other addictions) stem primarily from underlying psychological factors. This is why attempts to tackle them with advertising campaigns or taxation (or a combination of both) have met with only limited success.

But the inter-related problems in focus here don’t just centre on mental or physical ill-health. In England and Wales, 30.0% of women and 16.3% of men have experienced domestic abuse since the age of 16: around 4.9 million female victims and 2.7 million male victims?[3] And a recent study found that 11.3% of young adults in England aged 18-24 had experienced sexual abuse during childhood. Yet more, for the year ending March 2015 the latest estimates from the Crime Survey for England and Wales show there were 1.3 million violent incidents – including homicide, violence with injury, and violence without injury – in England and Wales.

The questions:

In the face of all this – the sheer scale of mental ill-health, lifestyle-induced physical illness, domestic and sexual abuse, the violence in society – we are entitled to ask:

  1. How is it that so many children exit from our school system, after 10 years or more of full-time education, so lacking in the social, emotional and psychological skills and knowledge that would greatly help them (and those around them) throughout their life?
  2. How is it that so many children exit from our school system, again after 10 years or more of full-time education, to become the teenagers and adults who commit such violence, or live such unhealthy lifestyles, or engage in domestic and sexual abuse?

The answers:

Clearly the vast majority of children receive a bad education – one that singularly fails to teach them what they really need most of all to know and be able to do. Instead, the school curriculum (the key issue here) largely centres on things – reading, writing and basic arithmetic apart – that most pupils don’t need to know and will never ever use.

Children in our schools learn far too little about the understandings, skills and areas of knowledge that would prevent many of them – even despite the difficult family and domestic backgrounds which some must endure – from becoming mentally ill or turning into anti-social and/or violent characters. And they spend far too much time in school learning about things that little benefit society (and themselves) when weighed against the huge societal and personal burdens that result from mental ill-health, physical ill-health (that which is caused by psychological factors), and abusive and violent behaviour.

The cosine of wasted time, the algebra of trivial information. Months spent on calculus, scant time given to schooling empathic imagination. Years ransomed to teaching foreign languages, yet many can barely grunt in the dialect of relationships. A decade or more given over to studying facts and information about the outer world, with barely a glance at the inner worlds that will affect them, their lives and the people around them so much more.

When was the last time you, the reader, ever really needed or used a knowledge of chemistry or physics or geometry?

In contrast, when was the last time you felt depressed or anxious or isolated?

And when you’ve answered these questions, here’s another one. Did you – did any of us – really get a good education?


[1] “Britain’s Mental Health Crisis”, BBC Panorama, October 26th 2015.

[2] According to Prof Nick Finer, from University College London’s Institute of Cardiovascular Science, obesity is now “the most pressing health issue for the nation”. He says that “estimates of the economic costs of obesity suggest they will bankrupt the National Health Service.”

[3] 2012-13 Crime Survey for England and Wales, Chapter 4 – Intimate Personal Violence and Partner Abuse, Office for National Statistics.

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