Is the mental health crisis in English schools being driven by the changes in teaching methods demanded by marketisation?

Roger Titcombe's picture


School refusal, school exclusions, self harm, drug culture, gang violence, social media and child suicides all appear to be linked, but there is no consensus on either the main causes, or effective responses, as is clear from this Guardian article.

The missing element from the debate is any coherent investigation and analysis of the perceptions of individual students of their school experiences. I have become interested in such issues following correspondence with Dr Jennifer Hawkins, who argues that emotional responses play a significant role in both learning and mental health issues and that this fact needs to be acknowledged and acted upon. Dr Hawkins’ book has recently been published and a preview can be found here. In it she analyses student voice, behaviour and context as a result of researching  the effects of empowering students by acknowledging and taking into account (though not necessarily agreeing with) their feelings as they learn.

My recent articles have raised concerns about ‘knowledge-based’ learning, its links to behaviourist ideology and how fundamental aspects of constructivist models that emphasise the role of metacognition, are being distorted and hijacked to support instructional approaches.

This may appear complex and abstruse, but such issues are at the heart of the ideological, government directed educational regime change that is threatening the education systems of the US and the UK. My personal career-long and continuing educational interest is with the potential for plastic cognitive ability/general intelligence to be enhanced through constructivist approaches to teaching and learning that were once mainstream in Western European and US schools.

Our schools are increasingly threatened by the march of neo-liberal political and economic ideologies that  require ‘educational regime change‘ in order for them to be implemented. I argue that the mental health crisis in our schools is ‘collateral damage’ that arises from this regime change process, which is led by the ‘Charter School’ movement in the US and ‘Academisation’ in the UK.

The ‘battlefields’ are the minds of children with their private mental crises arising from both cognitive and emotional responses to the culture of their schooling. My interests have previously focussed on how ‘knowledge-based’ pedagogy limits understanding and cognitive development. The work of Dr Hawkins has drawn my attention to important parallels with personal emotional responses, which can also limit learning and give rise to mental health issues. There is a paradox here, because ‘cognitive dissonance’ is necessary in order to trigger the metacognitive processes necessary for deep learning and understanding. But we don’t want such dissonance also to trigger negative feelings of failure leading to the questioning of ‘self worth’.

Metacognition means being aware of your own thinking process. It is a personal mental habit essential for the resolution of cognitive dissonance.  It recognises that language provides the tools for thought and that learners benefit by silently but consciously ‘talking to themselves’ as well as talking to peers and the teacher. As learners experience the resulting cognitive growth they develop a metacognitive ability that can be characterised in the education context as higher general cognitive ability (the student gains in general intelligence). Cognitive Conflict/Dissonance is central to all teaching for deep understanding. The teacher deliberately creates dissonance in the minds of students by exposing them to learning experiences that they struggle to make sense of. This is followed by supporting them in resolving this personal dissonance through encouraging and facilitating open peer to peer debate in the face of the evidence they have directly experienced. In order for a cognitive conflict to be resolved within the mind of an individual learner a personal conceptual breakthrough is usually necessary. Cognitive development (growth of general intelligence) arises from the accumulation of such conceptual breakthroughs, each of which is like mounting a cognitive staircase. If there is insufficient cognitive conflict then the learner will just assimilate experiences at a shallow level and there will be no conceptual or cognitive gain.

The work of the Russian learning theorist Vygotsky provides a structure to help the teacher plan such learning, through his ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (ZPD). The ZPD is the level of cognitive challenge beyond which the learner cannot manage unaided, but not beyond what can be understood with the assistance of a teacher or peers that possess the relevant understanding. The teacher and/or peer group members can assist in a variety of ways that involve discussion (peers) and skilfully constructed leading questions (teacher). This is a key role of the teacher. It is only by experiencing this type of teaching and subsequently discussing it in departmental teams that the necessary teaching expertise can be built within a school.

If the cognitive conflict is too great then the learner might ‘close down’ and withdraw co-operation. This could be at a conscious or subconscious level. In education, hostility to the whole subject area is therefore a possible consequence. This is a commonly reported reaction to students of science and maths when subjected to instruction-based teaching methods.  Highly skilled teaching and managing of learning is essential to avoid such an outcome. In schools with a healthy co-operative learning culture, cognitive conflict brings about cognitive development. However, within the toxic, disciplinarian culture of ‘knowledge-based’ instruction, cognitive conflict can trigger dangerously powerful emotional responses of  ‘low self worth’ and hopelessness that can regress into mental illness.

Such toxic school cultures now abound and are spreading.

They are mainly to be found in Academy schools run by particular Multi Academy Trusts (MATs), but the culture is contagious and is spreading to LA schools. It is likely to be popular with new teachers recruited to Academy MATs to ‘learn on the job’ in schools that lack both an interest as well as expertise in the complexities and counter-intuitive nature of constructivist approaches that would formerly have been experienced by teachers trained in academic University Schools of Education. This is the reason why the government proponents of educational regime change are moving teacher training away from academic university centres of research and teaching excellence and gifting it to Academy MATs. Former Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, famously stated that he ‘didn’t believe in experts’ preferring to ‘let the free market do the work of raising standards’ by forcing schools to compete with each other.

We need schools to be secure

Compared to most of my teaching career, which took place largely over the last three decades of the 20th century, our schools are now obsessed with security. Most of the secondary schools in which I taught had sites that were completely open to the public. The Leicestershire 14-19 Community College in which most of my teaching years were spent ran adult classes during the school day. Some of these involved adults learning alongside school students in the same classrooms. The large campus was unfenced, and the school had many external doors none of which were locked during the school day.

How times have changed. The local LA secondary school my eldest granddaughter now attends once had such an open campus. It is now surrounded by eight feet high security fences with vehicle and pedestrian access through electronically controlled gates. The neighbouring LA junior school attended by her sister recently had a ‘lock down’ drill.

So what is my point? I realise that we now live in less secure times, so we must accept the need to protect our children from new dangers.

But what about their emotional security?

The only case of serious harm being caused to pupils by an intruder to a British School took place in Dunblane in 1996 when an armed man shot and killed 16 children and a teacher. It remains the deadliest mass shooting in British history and the only one involving an adult intruder to a school. I remember this incident very clearly as I am sure do the residents of Dunblane. Of course our schools must be protected against such an event ever happening again and it is right that they have been.

But how many UK schoolchildren have since suffered serious, sometimes fatal, mental illness since 1996? It must number thousands and appears to be getting worse.

The Leicestershire Community College, where I taught had two full time School Councillors (a male and a female). The culture was very informal. Staff and students, including the Principal, were know to each other by their forenames. ‘Careers and Guidance’ was a compulsory weekly lesson for all students. It included Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE). Teachers were kindly and approachable. There was a School Council and classrooms had carpets. Desks were usually arranged in groups in rooms that were set out in ‘landscape’ rather than ‘portrait’ format with the teacher addressing the class from one of the longer sides of the room.

However in some major subject areas of the school the pedagogy was ineffective. While not ‘toxic’, it was certainly tedious. The worst example was the teaching of maths. This used the principle of ‘individualised learning’, which was regarded as radical and was popular at the time in ‘progressive’ school cultures. Maths was taught in a huge room to about 70 students, with three teachers. There was some direct instruction (not easy in such a large space to so many students), but the curriculum was based on students individually progressing through worksheets, which they retrieved from and returned to large filing cabinets, while the teachers circulated in the room responding to requests for assistance. A significant proportion of students coped with the tedium by quietly chatting. They found that if they did not attract attention they could get away with little engagement with the ‘hard stuff’ on the worksheet.

A version of this took place in ‘Core Humanities’, an integrated Mode 3 (locally devised and assessed) double award CSE course, that included English language and a ‘social studies’ approach to history and geography. It took up six lessons (two doubles and two singles) per week. These lessons were taught in ‘humanities suites’ (three classrooms that could be made into one by opening folding screens). These suites surrounded the ‘Resources Centre’ (library). As well as books there were ‘boxes’ designed to support the Humanities CSE course. These boxes were available for each topic on the syllabus and the idea was that students would retrieve and use the contents to write the ‘coursework assignments’ that were assessed by their teachers for the awarding of grades. The same avoidance of engagement with difficult ideas strategies (ie avoiding the attention of the teacher while quietly chatting), worked in both subjects.

I must stress that other parts of the school (eg, science, design and technology, GCE/CSE and ‘options’) did not use these methods and were very effective in both engaging students and getting excellent exam results, benefiting from the very good teacher-student relationships in the school.

Not only were these individualised learning approaches ineffective (because they made minimal cognitive demands), they were  essentially ‘knowledge-based’. They created the foundation for the computerised versions of the same basic approach now being developed in US Charter Schools and some English Academy MATs on the ‘knowledge-based’ model. ‘Edu-businesses’ are now busy pushing such ‘tech-based’ learning systems for the purpose of creating ‘for-profit’ schools. The business model relies on the need for far fewer and much less qualified teachers, who could be paid much less, so reducing running costs while making the same demands on funding from the taxpayer, so generating large profits and dividends for their investors.

Nancy Bailey in the US writes about this a lot on her US website. Here is an example.

The relevance of this 1970s diversion is that for all the weaknesses of this Leicestershire Community College, student indiscipline was not one of them. Neither, as far as I was aware, were large scale student mental health issues.

If we are to make progress in addressing the growing mental health crisis in our schools, and this is not yet happening, then DfE, OfSTED and/or the Children’s Commissioner must address the relationship between school cultures and student mental illness. Or will government policies of educational regime change rumble on and continue to take their toll on the mental health of our children?

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Celia Blair's picture
Tue, 05/03/2019 - 12:16

The ILEA (disposed of by Thatcher) at least had a "Home and Hospital Tuition" service in the 1970s. Pupils who were out of school for a variety of reasons were entitled to a two hours a day with a tutor of their own. The tutor either came to their home, took them to and worked with them at a centre or taught them in the tutor's own home.
I was a home and hospital tutor for 3 years. I taught several black boys who had been excluded from school for a variety of usually behaviour-related reasons; a pregnant 15 year old who had been rejected fom the family home by her father; a "fire-raiser"; a boy who had a leg injury that prevented him from traveling to school and, most dramatically, a boy whose mother had been murdered by his step-father.
As tutors we did our best but, in isolation, it was a gesture rather than any real solution.
The pupils were, without exception, bright enought to have gone on to complete GCSEs (as did the pregnant girl). On a one-to-one basis they were all good to be with, polite enough and mainly willing to take part in educational activities.
I have no sense of any similar service having survived the ILEA's demise but maybe I am wrong?

In addition to the officially stated reasons these pupils were not in school they could, each and every one, have benefited from something like CBT or counselling. This was not on offer to them, and was not seen as acceptable in the mainstream as it might be today.

Dr. Jennifer Hawkins's picture
Wed, 06/03/2019 - 15:23

Hi Celia, Your comment is more evidence of these sorts of problems which are (as I too found and reported some in my book) a mixture of difficulties and unique to each child. I did my research in 2000-2004 when the hours had been reduced to 6 hours a week. Of my group - most of the children were on anti-depressants, some had attempted suicide because of bullying, been abused, were diagnosed with a chronic illness eg M.E, were carers to parents with mental health difficulties or struggling with the death of a parent. To my knowledge, one or two went on to university, a few to FE and eventually got jobs, but many did not. They were of 'normal' intelligence and generally polite - not behaviour problems, but were considered naughty by school because they could not cope with school. You are quite right they needed person centred support, counselling and professional support from caring teachers and other professionals. These children and those who are different because of special needs are always going to be with us.

John Mountford's picture
Tue, 05/03/2019 - 21:42

Roger, in my opinion and for good reasons, you make the point that the mental health crisis we are witnessing is heightened by the marketised education reforms being pursued by successive governments. This is not the same as saying the reforms are the root cause of the problem. Your reference to 'collateral damage' makes this very clear. But the impact of employing zero tolerance behaviour policies on pupils, teachers and school culture is clearly evident, even to Amanda Spielman, the Government's Chief Inspector of schools.

I find it illuminating that you equate the experience of learners with that of operating in 'battlefield' conditions in our schools as they struggle with their 'cognitive and emotional responses'. The challenge to provide the appropriate level of cognitive challenge you refer to is difficult enough in learning at the best of times. How much more likely are pupils to battle with their emotions, therefore, when schools deliberately insert emotional barriers to learning through the employment of harsh disciplinary regimes. These are the very conditions the most vulnerable pupils find most difficult to navigate their way through. Little wonder that we are seeing exclusions and expulsions on the increase.

Dr Hawkins points out - "Motivations in learning and thinking are affected by four areas of fundamental emotional experience which affect different people differently.
Old learning events, perhaps long forgotten.
Current living environments.
Feelings arising from and within the learning process in action.
Current physical health."

Exactly where is the sensitivity and commitment to understand the implications of even one of these crucial factors in a school environment where zero tolerance reigns supreme? Anyone involved in any way with education who cannot grasp the fact that we can all fall victim to our emotions when we feel under siege, has no place working with young, developing individuals.

We ignore the impact of school culture on learning and student well being at our peril. Our leaders refuse to acknowledge their part in creating a climate in which fear and repression threaten to dominate. It is my sincere hope that parents and mature students can be supported in fighting this kind of abuse by standing up and shaming schools and their leaders who refuse to challenge what amounts to an affront to their professionalism. When you read Celia's moving stories of the lives of vulnerable individuals and compare these with the soulless utterings of ministers you struggle to hold back tears of rage.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 06/03/2019 - 08:31

Very well put John, I entirely agree with you.

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