Over the last few weeks I have been truly disgusted by stories surfacing in the education press about a large Multi Academy Trust (MAT) that implemented a policy when they took over a new school known as “flattening the grass”. Flattening the grass refers to a process of intentionally intimidating and humiliating targeted students (to the point of making them cry) in front of their peers in assemblies. This MAT is infamous in the education sector for its zero tolerance approach to discipline – at some of their schools students can get an hour detention for talking on the corridors – but what is shocking is the calculated and premeditated nature of this approach. (I have included a link to the story reported in the TES below. You will need to subscribe to TES to read the full article, but it is free, and worth it to get the whole story)
As a yoga and mindfulness teacher who spent over 15 years working in the secondary education sector, I can’t help but be drawn to the stories that hit the news on a weekly basis about the emotional and mental health of young people and the professionals who work with them in schools.
A survey, published recently by the NHS, shows that 12.8 per cent of children aged five to 19, have a serious impairing mental health condition. That’s about one in eight, or about 4 children in every class. Note also that this figure does not record less serious mental illness and emotional wellbeing issues.
At the same time, the emotional wellbeing of staff in school is also becoming a worrying issue. The Independent recently published a report showing that half of newly qualified teachers (NQTs) say their job has caused panic attacks or anxiety, while more than a third have been left feeling depressed; only 43% have definite plans to stay in the profession long-term. It has been known for some time that around 40% of people qualifying to teach either do not go into the profession or leave in the first year.
The ‘flattening the grass’ scandal stands out because of the support that this MAT has received from the Department for Education and Osfted (it is well known for achieving rapid increases in exam performance in the schools it takes over) and there has been little condemnation from mental health charities or even the Children’s Commissioner. It seems that as a society we are happy to let this ritualised abuse continue if it leads to more children passing exams.
It is clear that children are being ‘taught’ in these schools. The question is taught What?
A society needs to be clear about what function it wants its education system to perform. I believe that we have lost sight of the fundamental qualities of a good education system, and that is leading to the issues faced by young people and those working in schools.
On an almost daily basis we can read individuals and organisations pleading for more funding to support young people’s mental health, and lobbying for mental wellbeing to be a central part of the school curriculum. But rarely to we see anyone questioning why it is necessary to put children (and school staff) under such intolerable pressure in the first place. Schools should be nurturing and caring environments where children can thrive and grow into rounded and well balance young human beings; not grass to be flattened. Schools should be full of staff passionate about passing on their subject knowledge and contributing to the holistic wellbeing of children, not demoralised shells who are intimidated into pushing robotic students through an outdated exam system.
In his book “Flourish”, Martin Seligman addresses this very issue with a stark challenge to consider two questions:
“Question one: in one or two words, what do you most want for your children?
If you are like the thousands of parents I’ve polled you responded, “Happiness,” “Confidence,” “Contentment,” “Fulfilment,” “Balance,” “Good stuff,” “Kindness,” “Health,” “Satisfaction,” “Love,” “Being civilized,” “Meaning,” and the like. In short, well-being is your topmost priority for your children.
Question two: in one or two words, what do schools teach?
If you are like other parents, you responded, “Achievement,” “Thinking skills,” “Success,” “Conformity,” “Literacy,” “Math,” “Work,” “Test taking,” “Discipline,” and the like. In short, what schools teach is how to succeed in the workplace.
Notice that there is almost no overlap between the two lists.”
The mental health crisis unfolding in our schools will not be resolved until we accept that there is almost no overlap between the things we want from our education system and the things it currently provides. Emotional wellbeing is not something to be bolted on to the outdated curriculum – it should be a golden thread running through a child’s education from 4 to 19.