Education has become dominated by a “morbid focus on qualifications” at the expense of students’ and teachers’ wellbeing, and the government is “letting down” a generation of young people, a leading independent school headteacher has claimed.
Tricia Kelleher, principal at the Stephen Perse Foundation school in Cambridge, has warned that wellbeing “appears to be quite far down the government’s agenda for schools”.
In an article published on the school’s website, she wrote: “While students are exhorted to pass ever-harder tests throughout their school life, teachers have become the whipping boy for every social ill, tasked with remedying the problems of everyday life, and, of course, ensuring that students achieve ever higher ‘standards’.”
“Education should be a joy,” she wrote. “No longer. Education today appears to me to be about a morbid focus on qualifications and chasing ever higher places in the Pisa [Programme for International Student Assessment] league tables.”
Ms Kelleher, whose school achieved the world’s best International Baccalaureate results in 2013, said: “The direction of travel for education is about testing, testing, testing – a constant ‘weighing of the pig’. What about the learning?
“I think the approach to education in this country is a disgrace. The government is letting down a generation of young people, sacrificed on the altar of standards.”
She accused the government of having its “eyes firmly on the prize” of success in international league tables, which she said had led to neglect of “an education which encourages critical thinking, creativity and wellbeing”.
Ms Kelleher said that schools should prioritise students’ mental health. Students’ wellbeing should be “the most important question facing the teachers each day”, because if students were “emotionally in a good place” they would be well-placed to succeed at school, she argued.
The head said that schools should have strong teams of counsellors and nurses and should make time for mindfulness coaching.
A Department for Education spokesman said: “The best schools create a happy, safe and supportive environment for learning, so that all pupils can reach their full potential.
“We are giving teachers the freedom to develop lessons that will excite and inspire their pupils, investing £5 million in character education to help pupils develop the grit and resilience they need to succeed in school and later life.
“Alongside this, we are promoting greater use of counselling in schools, improving teaching about mental health, and supporting joint working between mental health services and schools so that children can thrive both inside and outside the classroom.”