One child a week, on Jersey, presents at A&E as a failed suicide (Jersey Child Accident Prevention). How do you view this statistic? Shocked? Appalled? Apathetic? The number of incidents of self-harming amongst children appearing at A&E is significant. A recent poll in the UK revealed that over a third of children had self-harmed. But what is the root of these statistics?
Jersey is an off-shore tax haven, synonymous with a luxuriant life-style but it is a place where inequality is higher than in many countries. £850k is spent on pupil premium per year, yet £12 million is spent subsidising private education. There is an underclass that struggle to survive. Exorbitant rents and poor housing are the norm. Homelessness and food banks are increasingly prevalent.
‘Poverty begetting child neglect’ is an all too familiar stereotype, one that society is becoming impervious to but the issue of wellbeing is not the sole preserve of the underprivileged. What must happen for us to be jolted out of our complacency? Child abuse is not just historic, it is operating today, in plain sight. The signs are there but nobody dares to join up the dots. It is the emperor’s new clothes.
We are horrified when we see stories of child abuse and exploitation in the National media. Who cannot be shocked by the treatment of infants in homes where violence prevails or the organised gangs that roam city streets grooming vulnerable teenagers? For most of us, watching the news on TV or reading the paper is as close to child exploitation as we get… or is it?
What is reported in the news is at the extreme but what actually constitutes child abuse. Much is made of slapping children. Some see this as child abuse others as acceptable ‘discipline’. The line that is crossed is not so clear, at least in this country. If slapping is abusive what about chastising your child? Is shouting at them being abusive? Grabbing them by the arm? We can accept such actions in context, to prevent our child from immediate harm but what about when they are just not being compliant, in non life-threatening situations. Are such actions acceptable then? If not could they be deemed abusive?
If we turn our attention to schools and schooling, how do teachers keep their pupils ‘on task’? Do they use positive reinforcement techniques, exclusively, or do they resort to less savoury actions? Physical contact is a ‘no-no’ that is understood but how many resort to giving children the ‘hair dryer’ treatment when they step out of line? Maybe they badger the children constantly or perhaps use more sinister strategies? Whilst we all hope that our children learn in a happy, productive yet cognitively challenging atmosphere, what is the reality of day to day working in a classroom?
The emphasis in the classroom was once about positive motivation, enjoyment and engagement. If the children were ‘at ease’ with themselves this made for a relaxed and productive atmosphere. With the introduction of performance related targets the class dynamic has changed beyond all recognition. It is one thing to have a star-chart on the wall but to list academic performance for all to see, naming and shaming? Is this bullying? Is this abuse? I believe that it is.
What about the children that are underperforming? How are they dealt with? How much pressure is applied to get them to meet their targets? At what point does ‘encouragement’ become abuse? Do the teachers recognise anxiety in their protégés? If they do when do they decide that enough is enough? Bullying in schools is commonplace and it is not just in the playground.
The teachers are, themselves, put upon by their line managers. Performance data is shared in department meetings and beyond. Questions are asked of those children working below the required performance ‘flight path’ and what the teacher is doing to remedy the situation? How many in these meetings put the emotional needs of the child first, accepting emotional distress as a legitimate reason for taking the foot off the pedal?
Rising further up the management chain, head teachers are pressured to improve school performance results as a priority. They are ‘advised’ by a small group of ‘professional partners’ whose sole aim is to ‘raise achievement’. Where in their meetings do they consider the wellbeing of individual pupils? Does this come first or after strategies aimed at increasing productivity? Is it mentioned at all?
Few of us are party to what is discussed in these meetings, the minutes are not readily available. However, the consequence of what goes on in classrooms, as a result of meetings etc is writ large in the statistics that reflect the wellbeing of our children.
The Mental Health Quality Report (2016-17) revealed that on Jersey;
- One in ten children have a mental health problem
- 50% of mental health issues are established by the age of 14
- Self-Esteem amongst teenagers has fallen by 20%
- 75% of mental health issues start before the age of eighteen
Self-harm is not just about cutting. Drug taking, eating disorders are types of self-harming. On Jersey one in three children are obese by the age of eleven. Absence from school is higher than in the UK referrals to CAMHs is at breaking point. Oddly none of these have been chosen as indicators in the 2016 Mental Health report for the island.
In Jersey’s educational business plan 2017-19 there is much about systems, training and academic progress (although the reality is not worth shouting about) but almost nothing about child wellbeing, nor was there any mention of this in the 2014 business plan. The island is not alone in its failure to step up to the mark.
Deriding children as ‘snowflakes’ or dismissing them as having been ‘mollycoddled’ is just avoiding the inconvenient truth. Detractors need to ‘man-up’ and face the facts, poor mental health is an epidemic. What we can all agree is that the ‘school of hard knocks’ shapes our personality. Mental Health issues now account for almost half the illness on the island and are costing business millions of pounds that is why it is being taken seriously (not because our children are hurting, notice). ‘Grinning and bearing’ is no longer an option.
Anxiety and depression are at the core of most mental health issues and much of it starts in childhood. Family breakdowns and abuse play their part but a recent survey carried out by YouGov for Barnardo’s in the UK has revealed that the main reason for pupils’ anxieties is school (65%) with concern about their future (42%) second. Online bullying accounted for only 12% yet it has garnered much publicity.
A recent PISA report (2017) showed that UK children were amongst the most unhappiest in the world, ranked 38/48. Only countries such as those in the Far-East that top the PISA league tables for Maths, Reading and Science fared worse. South Korea has the worst record in the world for teenage suicide. The correlation between poor mental health and the G.E.R.M (Global Education Reform Movement) approach to education is well established. Both the Barnardo’s (83%) and the PISA (72%) reports show that anxiety levels reach a peak at 15 years of age. As examination stress kicks in.
The issue not just about examinations, the problems go far deeper, the pressure to ‘perform’ is unabatting, from Nursery to A level and beyond. Children as young as two years old are put into ability sets. They are clinically compared with others and to benchmarks imposed upon them. There was a time when if a pupil was asked whether they would prefer the enjoyment of a subject or to get a good grade, most would have said the former. Today, nearly all choose the latter.
Education purports to be the vehicle for social mobility. Get your examinations, get a good job so you can earn more and have a better life. Parents and teachers buy into this rhetoric. It is a mantra that has been sung for millennia. You will now be contributing to the GDP and, by association, the collective prosperity of the nation, a real community effort. The reality is far more sinister. Education actively subjugates the population, forcing them to be accepting of working in a highly scrutinised, monotonous environment and to be compliant to boot. The situation is truly Orwellian. Neoliberalism is rife in education and it is destroying lives before they even have the skills to defend themselves.
If life in school is not stressful enough, children are subjected to further scrutiny in their private lives. Their first electronic device introduces them to a world that assesses their popularity as measured by the number of friends/likes they have on social media. (UK children spend 188 minutes on the internet, the international average is 142 minutes). Is it any wonder that our children are wracked with anxiety and depression?
The education department hides behind policies and procedures yet the culture of neglect remains; as long as the boxes are ticked…… All the resources that deal with mental health issues in school (and there are many) go into supporting or early intervention but these only treat the symptoms. It is called wellBEING not wellDOING for a reason.
Education constantly fans the flames. The wellbeing of our children should come first but it does not, academic performance is the (sole) priority. The policy makers are aware of the mental health issues their policies are instilling in our children but they choose to brush concerns under the carpet. The Education Minister (Rod Bryans) sanctioned present policy; the Chief Education Officer (Justin Donovan) created the monster, headteachers implemented it, teachers follow orders, professionals are complicit, many parents are too busy or too frightened to speak out for fear of reprisals and the general public is seemingly ambivalent. The Chief Minister (Ian Gorst) has passed the buck to Charlie Parker (the island’s latest CEO) and Deborah Macmillan (the island’s new Children’s Commissioner) with no guarantee he will implement their recommendations. I would urge them to investigate.
Our children’s silence is deafening but nobody is listening. Dissatisfaction, de-motivation and depression are prevalent (academic progress remains stubbornly slow). The queue to see the school counsellor and CAHMS grows ever longer. Both Charlie Parker and Deborah Macmillan are correct in that island culture needs to change. If they are to rescue our children their biggest challenge is yet to come.
Academic achievement and wellbeing can be mutually beneficial but at present the two are working antagonistically. We build resilience in our children not by constantly pointing out their failings but by providing them with a positive learning environment that helps to build confidence and self-esteem? Where children are happiest in the world they have an education system that is conducive to wellbeing and one that develops a wide range of positive skills, both emotional as well as cognitive.
We know the cause and its effects but who cares enough to act? The lack of any action to prevent the constant abuse of our children serves to demonstrate that the issue is so emotive that most would rather pretend it did not exist, starving it of oxygen in the hope that our children will ‘survive’ and come out the other end not too damaged by the experience. As an adult, as a parent, as a professional, where do you stand?
Colin Lever is the author of; Children in Need: Education, Wellbeing and the pursuit of GDP