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

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

  1. Jennifer Hawkins says:

    This is an interesting and well written article. I particularly like the nuanced way you’ve explained cognitive dissonance as being essential to learning.

    I think most people will understand what you mean by ‘instruction-based learning’ and ‘knowledge-based instruction.’ Some may complain though because they will inevitably point out that instructions and knowledge are always necessary on some level. They may not understand how these terms have come to represent rigid/fixed/dictatorial methods – unless they have experienced their inflexible use and realised the possible effects.

    I completely agree about the increased likelihood of “low self-worth and hopelessness that can regress into mental illness” in our current education system. This was certainly evident in my research with school-refusers and these problems have increased in recent years, being caused both in and out of school or both.

    Liked by 1 person

    • John Mountford says:

      I’m interested in your comment, Dr Hawkins. With reference to your final remark, I would to ask whether from your research you would be willing to elaborate further. In particular, I wonder if having worked with school-refusers very recently, you feel able to comment on whether the increase in recent years points to there being not only more young people displaying signs of developing mental health issues but that also, young people who might not previously have presented with such issues are now doing so.

      The reason for my asking this arises out of a personal observation. I have a grandson currently in Yr8. He has always been enthusiastic about school and has performed consistently above the (debatable) national expectations. In talking about his school experiences I have noticed a slight change in his approach to school. He seems on times to be ambivalent, if not hostile, and it appears to stem from his assessment of the school’s no-nonsense approach to discipline. He talks about low-level incidents being dealt with in a way he finds excessive. He also comments on the fact that so often it is the same pupils in the ‘limelight’ and that the punishments dished out clearly have no remedial effect. I am thinking that when schools exhibit this sort of approach it might well have an effect on not just the frequency and number of of ‘offenders’ but, as I said, it might have the effect of spreading the incidence.

      Roger has written extensively about the negative impact of zero-tolerance discipline on learning. From my own perspective, I anticipate there is a real threat that such practice is spreading and intensifying. If this is the case, it can only be bad news for our young people and the quality of learning will be impacted. Taking into account the evidence from your research and your suggestion that a feelings learning theory could improve our understanding of learning, I wounder whether the current trends in some/many schools flies in the face of common-sense. Any consideration that learners come with their own life stories and the attendant emotional ‘load’ seems to be overlooked. I believe we fail to address these at our peril.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Jennifer Hawkins says:

    It sounds as though your grandson is intelligent and thinks for himself. He’s noticing that the teaching approach is not working and may or may not be losing some respect for some of his school teachers.
    In my experience though – it’s a mistake to jump to conclusions, because he will have his own original take on the situation, which might surprise you! Ask him what his assessment IS – of what is going on at his school and really listen to him. and I think you might be surprised.
    I have recently done this with my thirteen year old grandson and was astonished at his mature take on things.
    I agree with your other conclusions absolutely – in the depressed area where I worked the parents often told me about their own deprived childhoods and needed help themselves – in my opinion emotional neglect causes a downward spiral in mental health in communities of all social groups!


  3. John Mountford says:

    Roger, I doubt you will have missed the headline report this morning coming out of the meeting yesterday between police chiefs and politicians seeking to tackle the dramatic rise in knife crime involving young people.

    It should be clear to anyone that, whereas the dramatic rise in school exclusions is not creating this situation, it is adding to the problem by fuelling a situation in which certain young people are drawn into an environment of despair that exposes them to danger. In this regard illegal and immoral off-rolling and the increasing resort to exclusions and expulsions, is most certainly adding to the social, emotional and environmental challenges facing the most vulnerable youngsters in our society.

    At the end of the BBC report, I was disgusted to read comments from government and Ofsted that clearly showed a lack of real concern, if not understanding of the issues. As an example,
    “An Ofsted spokesman said it had seen no convincing evidence that exclusions, in and of themselves, lead to knife crime or gang violence.

    It was, however, likely that exclusions are caused by the same underlying factors as violent crime, and therefore affect many of the same young people.”

    Just how utterly wrong is it to equate the causes for exclusion with those underlying violent crime. First of all, no sane person would argue that exclusions cause knife crime and gang violence. At the same time, that same sane person would not fail to connect the current rise in the use of oppressive behaviour control mechanisms in our schools with the likely increase in youth disaffection.

    Similarly, the DfE spokesperson’s inane contribution “Exclusions made in accordance with statutory guidance and leading to placement in a good quality, registered alternative provider should help keep all children safe,” sounds more like a prayer (should help) than a firm commitment to actually keeping children safe. Is it not the case that Amanda Spielman has already outlined to government her concerns that exclusions are not always made in accordance with statutory requirements? Is it, also, not the case that she is calling for action to end the unregulated practice of off-rolling? Is it not now time to bring in the necessary changes?

    The BBC report does positively identify there is need for central oversight of the growing number of at-risk pupils attending ALL types of schools and London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, made it clear that, as a first step, government should at least “act urgently by giving the responsibilities over all school exclusions back to local authorities.”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jennifer Hawkins says:

    I agree with much of what you say!
    I too feel a great deal of concern and some anger that all our children seem to be at-risk today – both physically and mentally! I hope that cross-agency professionals with practical expertise and those affected (especially adult survivors) will start to talk and learn from each other to create long-term solutions.

    So many with power seem to think that blaming others, ignoring and distancing themselves is enough. It isn’t as the deaths of two high achieving and relatively affluent young people this weekend proves.

    Hoping things will get better will not suffice without government intervention and practical funding administered by sensible people, who actually understand and are willing to listen and learn about the many contributory problems. In my opinion practical action research is also needed on the ground because problems are complex and action should be justified at every level in order to make sure society gets it right.


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