From the stress of transitioning from primary to secondary education to bullying in school, the ways in which the education system can affect mental health are multi-faceted. Whilst the report does illustrate some beneficial effects of the education system on young people’s mental health (such as providing stability), overall the prevalence of mental ill-health is increasing, and child well-being levels have either stagnated or declined.
Positive well-being and mental health are essential requirements in ensuring that young people develop into healthy adults, and the educational system plays a crucial role in shaping the experiences which lead to a healthy mind.
However, within the UK currently, school-aged children’s well-being is well behind that of other wealthy countries and – the report says – to compound matters, recent trends in the prevalence of mental health suggest that unless action is taken, mental health problems will increase by 63% in England by 2030.
“Teach to test”
According to the report, one factor within the educational system which is causing mental ill-health is the “teach to test” culture. Studies have shown that the pressure of examinations is a causal factor in mental ill-health. This claim is substantiated empirically by a piece of research by Rodway et al (2016), who conducted a multi-agency study which found that “exam pressures” were a contributing cause in 27% of suicides among under-20s within England. In view of this, “Making the grade” states it is imperative that we explore other forms of assessing young people, such as presenting and coursework-based activities which may mitigate pressures placed on young people.
Furthermore, the report sheds light on the importance of relationships between both staff and student and student and student. These dynamic relationships play a vital role in fostering healthy pupil well-being and a sense of belonging within pupils. As feeling less connected in school is a predictor of poor mental health outcomes, it is paramount that young pupils have safe and flourishing relationships within the educational setting.
Whilst there is a clear understanding of the issues young people face in the education system, there are several barriers which are preventing educational services from supporting young people. The report says that, without dealing with these barriers, mental ill-health and stagnant levels of well-being will remain.
One of the key constraints – and arguably the most important listed by “Making the grade”, in IF’s view – is the funding shortages which schools and education services face. “Making the grade” highlights research conducted by the Institute for Fiscal Studies which found that between the years 2009-10 and 2017-18, total school spending per pupil in England fell about 8% in real terms. Without appropriate funding, education services simply do not have the capacity to safeguard young people’s well-being and mental health.
With the World Health Organization suggesting that half of all mental health conditions start by the age 14, the education system is essential in preventing the prevalence of mental ill-health in young people. Consequently, and as the report states, we must ensure that we are investing in educational services in order to prevent the development of mental ill-health, and that we strive to create a healthy, nurturing environment.
The fiscal cost
Economically, failing to invest in preventative services ultimately creates a fiscal cost to the taxpayer, as those who will go on to develop mental ill-health are likely to be unable to contribute fully to society later in life through taxes and will cost the government in terms of medical expenses and productivity loss. A study by the King’s Fund has estimated the costs for depression and anxiety disorders in 2007 alone to be £7.5 and £8.9 billion respectively.
Thus, implementing early intervention schemes in schools for example will pay for themselves by raising the net fiscal contribution of those who, without appropriate services, would develop mental health disorders. IF therefore argues that there is a clear incentive to invest in early education services and this is corroborated by “Making the grade”, which makes increased funding of educational services a key recommendation.
Action is necessary
Clearly action is needed to prevent rising ill-health and improve well-being among schoolchildren.
This report forms part of a wider body of research – which IF supports – which calls on the government to invest in educational services in order to ensure the healthy development of schoolchildren. If we are serious about improving the mental health and well-being of young people in the UK, we must start to implement the recommendations of “Making the grade”.
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