19 March 2016
The Government’s New Education White Paper: Educational Excellence Everywhere was published on Thursday. It made the headlines for its plan to make all school academies, and for the additional hour being added to some school days.
But there was a real nugget of hope for self-esteem campaigner like me. Formal education has traditionally failed to focus on critical confidence-building, leaving many capable students unable to fulfil their potential. But that may be about to change. The government intend to focus more school hours on building confidence and resilience in every child. For me, this proposed reform couldn’t come sooner. The pressures on young people have never been greater – 24/7 connectivity, social media image pressures, cyber-bullying, all combined with an intense schedule of academic testing.
A recent study by York’s Social Policy Research Unit (Feb 2016) revealed that English children are some of the most unhappy in the developed world, with school and body confidence cited as the key sources of unhappiness. These findings ring true for me.
I left school with a stash of good GCSEs and A-levels, a place at Oxford and zero confidence.
I was a keen student but a miserable member of the class. I loved writing and reading but that made me a geek. I had naturally curly hair and big eyes but I felt like a frizzy haired, bug-eyed freak. School was a difficult place for me for so many different reasons. I ticked all the academic boxes but I spent most of the years feeling excluded, lonely and generally not as nice/pretty/popular/funny as everyone else.
I was invariably the last one to be picked when sports teams were chosen, I always ended up at the front of the coach on school trips next to the teacher (for fear of being picked on) and I would literally run home every day, eager to close the front door on the horrid world. I am exaggerating to make my point but I’m not convinced that at school I was given all the lessons that I truly needed for life.
I left school without nearly enough self-esteem, so when as an adult people would criticise me, I’d believe them. Or when a boss bullied me, I didn’t stand up for myself. Or when I got a good piece of news, I’d somehow tell myself something bad would happen. It took me a long time to address these issues and before that real happiness just wasn’t possible.
That was then. I can barely imagine the pressures school children face today. After a bad day at school, I would bury my head under my pillow in the safe confines of my home but our ‘always on’ digital culture means that there’s nowhere to hide from bullying, and social networks are blinking away throughout the evening and when you first wake up in the morning.
I left school and faced a relatively simple array of educational and career options, but now the opportunities are new and varied, and the financial commitment of further education can feel very daunting.
Yet much of what is taught in schools has not really changed for decades. Pupils learn the same core subjects using similar methods with the odd new fangled teaching tool thrown in. There is a constant media dialogue about slipping standards and a drive in government to return to more traditional methods to improve performance.
But what all of this fails to address is the crisis of confidence in youngsters that is happening now. Eating disorders, self-harm and irregular behaviour are at an all time high and amongst an even younger cohort. Recent NHS figures show that self-harm amongst children as young as 10 has risen 70% over a two-year period. Change is urgently needed to avert an all out crisis in teen mental health.
Self-esteem is a word that is oft cited but just as often misunderstood as a ‘fluffy’ new-age concept.; a ‘nice to have’ rather than an essential life skill. But having a healthy level of self-esteem is every child’s birthright. Believing in yourself at a deep level will enable you to be happy, make good choices and protect yourself from the inevitable knocks life will dish out. Sometimes commentators will use the word ‘confidence’ or ‘resilience’ but it boils down to the same thing. Developing strong self-esteem is critical to arming yourself to cope with life and its various pressures.
So of course the question becomes how do you teach self-esteem? As a behaviour, self-esteem cannot be instructed in a formal manner, but it can be adopted as a shared goal, discussed in the classroom, and fostered by a host of in-school initiatives.
The government’s White Paper proposes to broaden the range of in-school options (with the help of the additional hour now on offer) to offer more in the way of non-traditional activities and opportunities – from the arts to sports to playing a role in community. This is an important step to confidence building as it offers many more chances for children to discover their passions and talents. Not every child finds their true talent within the traditional school curriculum – a child who struggles with football or athletics in school can easily believe they are not sporty, only to become an avid climber or cyclist later in life.
The government proposal to expand the National Citizen Service (NCS) with every pupil the opportunity to take part in a social action project will also bring great benefits. Contributing to community is a critical part of building confidence and resilience. Exposure to the lives and challenges of others offers important perspective plus helping others triggers the pleasure part of your brain, actually boosting your own confidence in the process.
I just hope the government commits wholesale to this change; to provide a curriculum that considers and supports the mental health of its pupils. Not just tweaks around the edge of a traditional curriculum but ground breaking transformation that will ensure a great future for our children. Because I for one know that ultimately, success in life is based on far more than a set of exam scores.
Elizabeth Kesses – March 2016