Page 40 - Independent Schools Magazine
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 Focus on well-being & mental health
The pressing need for real community experience
Tim Firth, head of Wrekin College, Shropshire, discusses why the current generation of pupils can find life tough, and suggests what can be done to mitigate the rise in anxiety and other mental-health problems...
 Young people are just like us, but they have more multi-tasking
to do than us, and than we ever did, because everything that happens in their real lives has to be written up in the virtual realm. It is wearing for them having to maintain their avatar’s presence on social media, and more wearing as the events of their real life drift further and further away from the successful, good looking versions of themselves staring
out at ‘friends’ and back at them like Dorian Gray. Quite simply, they have more to do in the same amount of time than we have. The white water of adolescence
is hard enough to steer through without having to pretend that it’s not happening when you are online. If there are contemporary causes in the rise of adolescent mental health problems, and of course there are many, this might be the big one.
The best way to mitigate such a problem taking hold of a pupil is to throw the pupil into as much real, community experience as possible, so that they know which world is superior. After all, the virtual world can only ever be virtually interesting, whereas the real one is really interesting. A
school must compel pupils to have a go at many activities all at the same time, so they can find out who they are, what they do and don’t like, who they do and don’t like, what they are good
at actually, really. They will soon discover their real selves when exposed to real events, rather than by fashioning online avatars in the silent cells of their lonely bedrooms. They will cultivate empathy and sympathy working out of their ‘comfort zone’ with real people experiencing the
same challenges and difficulties, rather than online infer that all about them are happy whilst
they are not. They won’t build
up delusions about how great they should be and others are if they are all poorly performing a play together on a stage rather than staging sanitised selves on a media platform.
The other obvious point to make about a good school life is that
it will take you outside as often as not, for physical, psychological and spiritual reasons: onto muddy pitches, cold netball courts, into the hills and far away on Duke
of Edinburgh trips where you get a dose of nature rather than a pixelated portrayal of it. If there is such a thing as a snowflake generation, then putting a pupil in a drift of snow on a thirty mile Gold D of E walk will stop them melting as a personality. Everyone knows the benefits
and it seems pretentious to
point them out except that
such a range and amount of activity is atrophying in schools, often consciously withdrawn by schools. One depressing truth, muzzled by schools, is that a lot of schools only want their pupils revising and see everything else as subordinate.
When I was at school, we got little help, but then again there was less expectation of success and, in any case, decent jobs were waiting. The emphasis was more on formation of character than anything else. Now exam results are too important to
be left to emerge out of the character of children, and time
is deemed too short to develop the character needed to face the music of exams. Bypasses are built in schools to circumnavigate this problem: spoon feeding and teaching to the test start on day one and extra cramming has crammed the curriculum. Pupils are given pre and proscriptive assistance galore, but are under much more pressure to make it count and, even if they do, good jobs are in short supply.
If the Government want to do something about the rise in anxiety in children and the lack
of focus on development of character, they should compel via curricular expectations all children to take part in plays, sports teams and make it mandatory part of matriculation that a pupil pass at Gold Award level in the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme.
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