‘I’d rather die than eat this with you.’
A missile fired across the tea-table by my eldest daughter. I will not describe in any detail the depths to which she sank or the battering her body endured during that deadly two year campaign. Simply, It was a hideous time. She may be recovering now, tentatively, but I’m still unable to look at ‘Before Anorexia’ photographs like the one above without feeling the most profound sense of loss.
Oh, the things I would tell my ‘Before Anorexia’ self, if we could only go back. Among these, that allowing your fourteen year old daughter to eat tea in her bedroom is a mistake; that agreeing to her cooking her own meals is a bigger one; that frantic concerns about appearance do not reflect just normal teenage insecurities; that long silences; not wanting to go out; checking calories; running after tea; working-out upstairs; claiming to need laxatives – there should be sirens going off everywhere when these things are happening. Most of all, I would tell my BA self that you should never, ever share your own body hang-ups with your impressionable daughter; the one who is bombarded daily with toxic, body-shaming, impossibly thin beauty standards and who looks to you for strength, support and a normal sense of perspective.
Indeed, I now look back at that blissfully ignorant BA self as one who had no real understanding at all of just how incredibly resilient today’s adolescent must be – for all those years spent working with them in secondary schools. The world for young people is nothing like the one we inhabited as kids. Most of us could escape into our homes, lick our wounds when necessary and face another day. For today’s teenager, 24 hour social networking never lets up; the pressures to have access to a plentiful supply of money, the perfect lifestyle, the perfect body are immense; family breakdown is widespread; as exam factories, schools heap on the pressure and to cap it all, the future for school leavers is so, so uncertain on so many levels. Goodness knows, the modern teenager must be resilient.
So when Nicky Morgan suggests that we need to think seriously about promoting resilience in our schools, she is absolutely right. Of course, she should be reflecting on whether Gove’s reforms, such as the end of modular courses (favoured by universities but apparently insufficiently rigorous for teenagers) have added to the pressure, but at least she acknowledges the existence of a problem. And for those who maintain that we’ve promoted resilience for years in our schools, I beg to differ. Not only has painful experience taught me otherwise, a plethora of horrifying mental health data shows that our young people are not coping. We are not successfully building any kind of resilience.
If the point needs illustrating, consider these facts from ‘Young Minds’. One in five young adults show signs of an eating disorder, three children in every classroom have a diagnosable mental health disorder, one in twelve self harm. This data is, of course, depressingly familiar, but what are we doing about it – beyond bemoaning savage cuts to CAMHS? These are scandalous and short-sighted, of course, but how about schools taking the idea of prevention – building resilience – seriously? Surely, we cannot simply continue to deliver the national curriculum as if there is no mental health crisis; as if a focus on raising academic standards will somehow prepare young people for a successful transition into adulthood. As if they are thriving on business as usual. This would be head-in-the-sand folly.
We forget at our peril that we are as educators ‘in loco parentis’. If somebody at Meg’s school had taken their responsibility in this regard seriously, her eating at lunch might have been monitored – as we asked – she might have been allowed to sit in the warm rather than freeze outside – as we asked – she might have had a mentor to talk to – as we asked – the disapproving attendance reminders might not have been sent and she would surely never have been required to participate in a charity run that resulted in a desperate after-school dash to A+E. Who knows, school might have been a place where she felt safe, supported, understood. Instead, it was an alien, hostile environment where she truly believed that nobody cared and she was only as valuable as her grades.
As a parent and as a teacher, I am changed forever by these experiences. I have a completely different set of priorities. I am determined that my own school continues to develop as one that adjusts to support students who are not resilient. I am proud that vulnerable young people, sinking under the pressure, now transfer to us from local grammar schools and are able to thrive – and learn – again. Keyworker support, liaison with home (respecting confidentiality), a safe haven for break and lunch, perhaps a reduced timetable; the adjustments required are not enormous, but they do make an enormous difference.
I am also proud that pastoral staff at my school do not see their duties as amounting to nail varnish removal – and yes, I am referring back with some bitterness to my daughter’s academy. I am proud that we have a Mental Health and Wellbeing policy which ensures that a team of highly skilled support staff, who care deeply about our students, are trained in bolstering their self-esteem, alleviating their anxieties, mediating with friends and family, signposting to services such as Addaction and Young Carers, and most of all in really listening. We know from the rating scales we use to monitor progress that the impact of these keyworkers is huge. There are fifteen of them in all, each with the capacity to work with two or three students. In a school our size, nobody has to wait for help and, crucially, many adolescent problems are caught before they become acute.
When she was in Year 8, Meg came home after a PE lesson distraught because a ‘friend’ had described her pubescent tummy as ‘flabby’. (No wonder so many girls hate PE if that’s your typical changing room banter). That, looking back, was the start of our two year nightmare. In bringing young people together within our schools, we have a moral duty to educate them in how to support rather than catastrophically undermine each other. All students need to learn about mental health, not just because one in four of them will suffer at some stage in life, but also because they impact on one another so massively. Teenagers doing this adolescence thing for the first time need to be taught how to look after themselves and each other. There are some terrific resources out there to help in this. Body Gossip’s self-esteem programme is just wonderful. We also use the free and excellent @TimetoCgange resources within PSHE and during our mental health awareness week.
Last year’s @NatashaDevonSET self esteem class was launched with this poetry video, made by our students. If you listen to it, you will note the power, passion and honesty of the writing.
Our students want us to allow them to explore issues that are of urgent concern to them. And although they would never admit it, they do look to us for guidance. Perhaps Nicky Morgan gets this in a way that her predecessor clearly did not. Whatever, I think we must certainly encourage rather than condemn her interest in education for life as well as for exam success. Meg got her haul of grades – I’d swap these for resilience any day.