Breaking the Silence. States of Mind's Student Working Group responds to Ofsted's Consultation.

In January 2019, Ofsted launched a public consultation detailing the proposed changes to their inspection framework. Ofsted Inspections have a significant influence on young people’s experience of education as it drives every schools focus on data, outcomes and exam performance.

States of Mind views mental health concerns in the context of young people’s lives and seeks to identify, with young people, the causes of their distress. The purpose of this project was to provide young people with the opportunity to speak about their experiences in education and to use their voices to help inform, at a policy level, new ways in which schools can create more psychologically healthy environments for students.

Over the period of the consultation, 80 students have shared their views towards Ofsted’s influence on the culture of schools and the subsequent impact this has on student’s mental health and identity.

The results expose a complex account of how the UK education system, under Ofsted’s current framework, is contributing to a decline in the mental health of students. The working group have revealed a story, that provides a new understanding of the rising levels of mental health concerns for young people. Student’s have summarised their findings in an open letter to Amanda Speilman, calling for their voices and experiences to be heard.

I have been doing work experience with States of Mind for 10 weeks and I have learned a lot more not only about mental health but also how it fits in our society today. States of Mind has allowed me to be able to see the bigger picture and feel like, for once, my opinion and the voices of other young people have been listened to and that they actually matter. I enjoyed every week and every activity that we did and I genuinely feel like all of it has a purpose and that it should become a much bigger deal and acknowledged by more people. I would recommend States of Mind to anyone who cares about the current system and who wants to learn more not just about the world but about themselves. The whole experience has been enjoyable and I have learnt skills that I will take with me for life.

Julia Furoni, Student working group member.

It is in the interest of parents, employers and society as a whole that the education system allows young people to develop as individuals. Yet the education system stagnates and represses individual identity through its design and specifically, it’s narrative around what it means to be a successful person in the world. This research project set out to investigate the details in the experience of the younger generation, and what meaning this held for their experience beyond the classroom. They have expressed their views and their ideas about what reform would look like. 

The unfaltering belief in the value of Standardised assessment and high stakes testing has become the true ‘emperors new clothes’ of the education system. Concealing the reality for students of surrendering their sense of identity to a narrow and inadequate measure of their intelligence. ‘ we are not learning, we are just memorising’. This phrase echoed throughout the research, leading to an uncomfortable truth. The education systems dependency on high stakes testing is bleeding dry students interest and motivation in learning, alongside their recognition that it neglects individual differences, favouring individuals who can ‘ memorise huge chunks of knowledge’ to be forgotten soon after.

The effects of high stakes testing should not be underestimated. Students are shamed by teachers and their families if they do not submit to the idea that their future success is dependent on their entry to University. They are repeatedly sold the idea that their alliance and commitment to academic institutions will guarantee financial and personal security in later life. Meanwhile students are aware that non- academic routes will often suit their needs better and can even place them ahead of their peers in terms of access to employment. Mental health and personal development are viewed through the context of academic success ‘They only consider mental health in the face of your ability to get good grades’ . Their self worth is framed as their ability to perform under pressure and withstand high levels of academic stress. The pressure on schools to retain high attendance means students experiencing personal difficulties are pressured to return to school and believed to be ‘bunking’ if they do not attend. This minimises and invalidates their very real experiences of mental distress as weakness and compounds stress through added pressure and the neglect of often traumatic circumstances. 

Students recognise that the role of teachers is only to teach to the test and ‘ get them to university’ . Students recognise this stress, which reduces their sense of being able to ask for help, for fear that the mindset they will receive is that they are not ‘good students’. Schools view mental health problems through a reactive not preventative lens - as only existing when students are in crisis , which creates a culture that minimises valid mental health concerns and fails to integrate models of early intervention. 

Students want to be seen as individuals, with individual needs and unique ambitions but the structure of education makes this nearly impossible, as they are ‘ funneled into university’ and needs that extend beyond academic concerns are dependent on teachers working outside their job description. Education prioritises the performance results of the classroom, rather than a holistic and student focused culture of general wellbeing and self determination. There is a stigma around non academic pathways and alternative routes to employment which frames less academic students as having ‘failed ‘ the ‘ true test of intelligence’ . Unless Ofsted are prepared to radically reconsider their emphasis on standardised assessments , this situation will not change in a way that is significant enough to repair the underlying issues. 

Bea Herbert