On Wednesday, I read an article in the Times Education Supplement entitled: ‘High attainers and mental health: the risks you need to know’. As an academically selective school, we have a high number of bright children, and those in Years 11 and 13 are on the brink of their main examination period. Their parents will know that it is a challenging time, and that it is really important for them to pace themselves and to manage stress levels.

The clinical psychologist writing the article talks about some of the factors which are affecting children’s well-being, including ubiquitous phone use, adverse childhood experiences, the pandemic and also a real sense of academic pressure to which children often subject themselves. You may have heard me state my own concerns over the introduction of a grade [9] at GCSE, for high achievers will want to race to the top, despite the fact that a grade [8] still equates to the excellence of the previous A* grade.

Researchers in an American study describe a ‘survival of the fittest mentality’, fuelled by the inescapable comparison that social media encourages:

Young people are constantly ranking themselves in relation to their peers, leading to overextension in all aspects of their lives. Even things that are meant to be fun become stressful, with hobbies being seen as something for a personal statement rather than a genuine source of enjoyment.

They add to this a climate of high attainment in school, underpinned by parental expectations.

The author does not offer solutions (as the pressures appear to be endemic in society) but has a few suggestions for schools to mitigate some of the pressures:

  1. Don’t frame exams as the ‘finishing line’ (i.e. learning is for life, not just exams)
  2. Make wellbeing a whole-school ethos
  3. Don’t unwittingly play into young people’s anxiety (i.e. don’t employ scare tactics when the majority are already working very hard)

We cannot deny that many of our children feel the pressure, in an exams system and society which can breed what the author calls “racehorses, pushing themselves towards the finishing line”. That exams system needs reform, and we must do our best in school to help young people manage the pressures and to ensure that challenges remain positive rather than negative.

As you are aware, we have been reviewing our approach to homework and many of you also contributed to our survey about reports; we will give you updates soon, ready for some changes from September. We now speak much more to pupils about positive mental health and well-being, and we have extended our provision significantly. We have increased the guidance around study and revision skills, and we teach mindfulness to all pupils in Year 9. Our Ivy House course in the Sixth Form focusses heavily on the control or leadership that pupils can exercise over their own lives, at a time when they have already become more independent in their learning.

When our pupils do have concerns, we would always much rather that they spoke to us instead of bottling things up. They can talk to any trusted teacher or tutor, in addition to the trained members of our pastoral team and student mentors. And they know that they can also voice concerns anonymously via Whisper – and that those concerns will be addressed sensitively.

Visitors to LGS invariably comment that it seems a happy school, and we aim to build a caring and kind community and culture which then breed success of their own accord. However, I know that not every day in life will be a happy one, and we must as adults offer the reassurance and support that our children need.

Best wishes,

John Watson