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Our education system covertly fuels a mental health crisis

We tend to think of student mental health as something outside of educators' control - but does our system make it worse? Wendy Garnham calls for learning that boosts self-esteem
This article is more than 1 year old

Wendy Garnham is a Reader in Psychology and Director of Student Experience for the Central Foundation Years, University of Sussex

A student struggles with anxiety to the point where they are unable to attend their teaching session.

Another experiences a mental health crisis that causes them to leave their university accommodation and return home.

These are certainly not the experiences we envisage when we encourage students to continue their education at university – but unfortunately, these scenarios are all too common and look to be increasing.

A report by the Sutton Trust suggested that 70 per cent of students are now concerned about mental health.

And the Student Experiences Insights Survey in England, run by the Office For National Statistics in 2021, reported a staggering 37 per cent of first year students reporting moderate to severe depression, 39 per cent reporting some form of anxiety disorder and 27 per cent experiencing symptoms that may suggest an eating disorder.

This has not been an unexpected increase either. From 2009-2015, there had already been a 210 per cent increase in students experiencing mental health difficulties dropping out of university according to

Reaching for the plaster tin

Whilst there are on-going attempts to address the issues our students are facing, these often feel like a “sticking plaster solution” to a deeply ingrained issue that in my opinion starts much earlier in the education system.

Although this is by no means the only factor that contributes to the statistics above, the current educational experience for many does seem to be driving difficulty not only in motivating students to see their full potential but in supporting students to build their self-esteem.

In the 30+ years that I have been teaching, I have been privileged enough to teach at all levels of the curriculum. When I first began teaching in further education, we had modular A levels where students could choose to sit exams in the January of an academic year if ready to and or in the summer.

This allowed students to progress at their own pace and to space out their assessments along the learning journey. A/S levels were introduced, allowing students to study four subjects in their first year of study and then focus in on three in their second, promoting a more diverse learning experience in their initial year.

This has been replaced with end of year exams that put students under enormous pressure at one time point in the academic year, more challenging and complex content, a drive for students to study just three core A levels all the way through their two years of further education, narrowing their outlook and increasingly, a focus on rote learning and reproducing “model answers”. Indeed, you can now purchase textbooks devoted to providing students with model answers for particular exams.

Level 2 woes

This is not specific to further education either. GCSE students are bombarded with complex information that they then need to revisit in the form of homework after school. Failure to do so leads to penalties and the time this consumes restricts the opportunity to engage in extra-curricular activities that promote not just well-being but also creativity. Given the recent hit that arts subjects have taken in education, this is a particular concern, aside from any workload implications for teachers which is equally concerning.

There is an increasing lack of differentiation between GCSE and A level study. The quantity and level of knowledge required for GCSEs now appears to have been increased to a level where we are effectively making it more and more difficult for students to experience any significant success at all in education (aside from the additional workload this creates for teachers).

This is ironic given the Government’s own strategy was described as one which aimed to “better prepare pupils for work and further study”. Whilst exams are designed to test knowledge, setting young children off into the world of work with a heavy burden of failure on their shoulders is surely not a good way to boost their self-esteem and create a good start to their careers.

Many leave knowing about Pythagoras’ Theorem but have no idea about taxes. They may know the distinction between phases and clauses but have no idea how to cook a healthy meal for themselves.

Fixed and rigid

For those that do make it to university, one of the biggest challenges we currently face is having to un-do that fixed and rigid approach to learning that has been drilled into our students before they arrive with us.

In assessments, students frequently enter university looking for “the right answer”. They have worked so hard to recall rote learnt material for their exams prior to coming to university that they are effectively exhausted by the time they roll into their first lecture of the term and the idea of thinking creatively is an alien concept.

With this in mind, I advocate a better education system for all. At GCSE, students would be expected to learn just the basic information they need to get an initial grasp of a subject. This would be information that would equip them with the skills and knowledge they need to maintain wellbeing and function well in society. If their interest is piqued by something they have studied, then further study, initially at A/S level and then at A level would allow them to study the more complex elements of that subject in a way that perhaps equips them for a specific group of potential careers.

Alternatively, at this point, vocational courses can empower these young people to develop in job roles that are more hands-on. In either case, making success more achievable in their earliest, identity-forming years means we are setting them up to have higher self-esteem and more motivation to contribute to society.

Having less quantity but more quality in the teaching experience enables teaching staff to incorporate more opportunities for creativity into learning with the result that students are able to develop their own independent thinking and study skills further. Indeed according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, countries that embrace creativity in their educational programmes are topping the education tables.

The ability to think outside the box is a characteristic that is sorely neglected – and something that future workforces will need. Doctors need to know their facts for sure but if they can only rigidly regurgitate “typical” cases of a disorder then that leaves little room to allow for individual variations of how symptoms are experienced and potential diagnoses may go undetected. Engineers need to know facts but it is their ability to think outside of the box that drives innovation and advances.

Indeed, the whole discipline of scientific discovery is based upon the ability to be creative with what we know. If all we did was rote learn what other people have done and repeat it we would never get anywhere.

Looking ahead

But ultimately, we need to address the significant negative impact that our education system is having on the wellbeing and mental health of future generations. Education is not meant to be an endurance test. It is not meant to be a test of memory alone.

For our students, it is meant to foster a life-long interest in the world around us, in learning for pleasure as well as for future careers and to spark the imaginations of those who will be creating new solutions to future issues in society.

So, how do we move beyond the sticking plaster approach? Perhaps now more than ever, we need to ensure that the investment in ensuring an effective transition into higher education is prioritised. We cannot afford to make assumptions that students will appreciate or understand the value of discussion, bringing their own personal ideas to their learning or the need for critical thinking given the educational experience the majority will have had up to that point.

A useful first step may be to ensure that transition programmes include a strong element of pedagogical philosophy to support the need to move to more creative approaches to learning content; show students what happens in businesses, explore current ideas about how the marketplace might change with increasing AI and explore with them what the implications of that are for their education. The drive towards using more authentic forms of assessment also helps students to see the value of creativity in learning and the continued push for more active forms of learning may help to restore the sense of belonging and self-esteem that seems to increasingly be eroded in pre-university study.

Ultimately, “bridging the gap” is not just about settling into a different environment or identifying the nuts and bolts of how things work. It is about giving students the freedom to think, evaluate and create a learning experience that will boost and sustain both a higher degree of self-esteem and a greater sense of their value in that process.

5 responses to “Our education system covertly fuels a mental health crisis

  1. Some interesting ideas here but it seems to omit some obvious points. Whenever I have raised mental health problems with colleagues in the past, the tuition fee regime is something that is never far away in terms of possible cause. Beyond this, developing confidence and self-efficacy as learners is something we aspire to in HE; this combines emotional and epistemic aspects. This was reflected in a Student Minds report of a few years back.

    On the “transitional programmes”, where are they to be delivered? Within HEIs? Does this leave the “fixed and rigid” pre-university approaches to learning intact?

  2. I agree that a lot of university teaching is to un-do, or help students to un-do, the “paining by numbers” approach to learning. However, I don’t think your suggestion to teach “taxes” instead of Pythagoras, and healthy cooking instead of grammar, is really helpful. First, the problem isn’t so much the content, but how it is taught. A class on healthy eating would, in the current system, end up being about learning calorie counts by rote. Second, I’m very much in favour of acquainting students with abstract concepts and to get them away from the question “is this relevant to my life”. This ends-directed approach to learning greatly damages the creativity and problem-solving abilities you advocate.

  3. “But ultimately, we need to address the significant negative impact that our education system is having on the wellbeing and mental health of future generations.” BINGO! Now to address the problem that is embedded in students minds, having been inculcated from early years onwards through the education and indoctrination system, it’ll be harder to effectively address and break that repetitive cycle than simply trying changing how Universities deal with the issues that result.

  4. We need to bridge the gap between schools and university to ensure students know what and how they will learn at university so as to be prepared. Better guidance on subjects and their relevance to possible careers. Better awareness that SEN at school is replaced by “ disability support “ in universities. And most of all, stop the mantra that good students must go to university. Can I honestly recommend to my granddaughters that they need to start their careers with a £50,000 debt and a potentially worthless degree certificate???
    More careers should revert to practical education either at technical college or apprenticeship and junk the degree. You don’t learn how to join electrical cables or water pipes on a degree course, especially not by distance learning in a covid scared world.
    I’ve just retired from a career as a university lecturer.

  5. I think you are missing out the most important factor for student MH – that the maintenance loan won’t even pay the rent, so many are struggling to work alongside courses that just aren’t designed for it.

    Add to that the commodification of education – not valuing the learning but just the outcomes – and the tendency to perfectionism and lack of acceptance of any failure instilled by society from a young age, and you have the perfect storm.

    Really not liking the implied approach of education at school level being all about career utility. That approach is one of the things that has got us in this state in the first place.

    And seriously, can we stop with blaming schools. This notion that all schools do is spoon feed is just plain insulting to teachers.
    And incidentally many parents and kids are seeing education as all about qualifications however hard schools try to fight this; this attitude is of course reinforced, if not brought about, by successive governments’ attitudes.

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