Sebastian Hepher, headmaster of Eaton Square School, brings an English perspective to an international debate

I have been asking myself recently whether the growing need in schools for an increased focus on wellbeing, mindfulness and pupil support mechanisms is something that has always been required but has not been addressed, or whether it is a reflection of the societyin which we now live. 

I suspect there was an element of the former in the past but, in recent years, the need has escalated hugely. The question then continues; if it is the latter, is it society itself or is it, perhaps, the basis and mechanisms of our own educational system which has caused this situation? Are we, as educators, responsible for the increased stress, anxiety, related conditions and in many cases unhappiness which our pupils are experiencing? 

It is true that any exam system within the school world brings with it an element of pressure. Learning to adapt and cope with this is positive and it is not new. However, what has changed in recent years is the greater emphasis on school transfer points at entry and at exit, together with the constant pursuit of improved exam results at GCSE and A-level. 

How many heads are appointed with the mandate of improving the academic profile of their new school in terms of its leavers’ destinations or of increasing the number of pupils obtaining A* – A Grades (or 9s and 8s)? How many parents select a prep school which has the ‘best’ results in terms of senior schools it feeds into over and above the school which promises to provide the happiest, most supportive and fulfilling environment for their young child? 

This is repeated with the senior schools to university transfer. Is it a coincidence that more and more children are being tutored after school, before school and at weekends than ever before? Parents and schools, or schools and parents, appear to be in an escalating cycle of constant, exam-related focus which is acutely affecting the children’s wellbeing and confidence which in turn is having life-changing consequences.   

Eaton Square School pupils find a balance between work pressure and downtime with friends

As a head and father of four I sympathise with the pressures felt by both educators and parents. I understand how difficult it is to remain strong, independent and wholly wedded to the idea that it is a child’s right to grow up without too much pressure, in an environment which truly develops the whole and which allows time for them to simply ‘be’. How difficult it is not to be fixated with the school, university or place of work that our children should aspire to join. How difficult it is not to be disappointed with ‘lower grades and scores’ achieved and to celebrate wholly and fully the pupil who has improved beyond recognition and who displays such love and kindness to their peers that surely, surely they will be carried on to achieve great things.

There is a huge amount of ‘good’ being done in our schools each and every day. The British independent educational system is one of the most respected in the world, for justifiable reasons. The opportunities afforded to the children of all ages are staggering and it is right that these are celebrated.

However, we cannot keep avoiding the fact that the exam-based system that has been the backbone of these same schools has gradually developed into one of the most stressful times of a student’s life in an unprecedented manner. 

Recent changes by the North London Consortium, a collection of girls’ schools who pool their examination papers so that girls applying to these schools only have to sit one exam, indicates that schools are aware of the situation and responding, as do the discussions that are taking place between the GDST, HMC and IAPS schools in relation to exams and entry points. 

This is most positive. However, what we all as educators need to do, is to look at how we can make sure this area and that of the GCSE and A-levels are kept within reasonable bounds. We must also ‘educate’  parents to understand the dangers of over-stretching their young and impressionable children for, if not, I fear that the consequences for them will be most damaging and long-lasting.

This article originally appeared in the SS18 issue of School House.