How can we push students to breaking point, only to have them be let down by the mental health services?
To many, it is obvious we are in the middle of a mental health crisis in the United Kingdom. In a world where it has become OK not to be OK, it appears everyone has some opinion on mental health and what we should do about it.
Under new educational reforms, students have been disproportionately affected by the crisis. As figures from the National Office of Statistics demonstrate, teenage suicide in England and Wales has increased by 67% between 2010 and 2017. At university level, figures for 2016 recorded, at 146, the highest number of suicides since 2001. A 2017 study by IPPR, a think tank, showed a fivefold increase in the number of first-year students who admit to having mental health issues, reaching over 15,000 in a decade.
This is evidence of a growing mental health crisis within the student body. While this article focuses on stress and depression, many other disorders are being triggered in students studying for their A-levels, such as eating disorders and bipolar disorders, which are part and parcel of the bigger problem.
A-level exams, which students in Britain sit to gain entry to university, have become more challenging than ever over the past couple of years. Students sit between two and four A- levels, with an average of three exams per subject, which works out at about 12 exams per candidate over a period of about a month. As a result of the reform of the curriculum, brought about by former Education Secretary Michael Gove in 2017, students sit all their A-levels at the end of a two-year taught course, instead of half the exams at the advanced subsidiary level (AS) and half the exams at A2. This means anything taught over the two years can appear on the final exam. This in turn means essentially two things for students — many exams and a lot of revision in a short time frame.
While I do not contest that students should be not pushed to achieve their full academic ability, there is a fine line between encouragement and pushing too far. For the majority of students today, this boundary has been significantly blurred. While the classic idea of leaving everything until the last minute works well for some, others are stretched to their limits trying to complete homework, classwork and revision required alongside the extracurricular activities and achievements that are so valuable to their university applications.
During my A-level studies, I was arriving at school an hour early to get some tasks done, doing a six-hour school day, and then staying behind to complete any more work for two hours. After any other commitments, I would often go home and do yet more school work. I was averaging five hours of additional school work per day. Most of my teachers recommended between four and five hours of independent study per subject per week, amounting to around 14 hours extra work on top of 6 hour school days. It is easy to see how this quickly gets too much.
The linear two-year courses have also had important implications for university admissions. With no AS qualifications at the end of the first year of A-levels, UK universities have little but grade predictions to work from in order to consider whether an application will be accepted or rejected. AS grades, which previously counted for 50% of the overall A-level meant that applicants had already attained half of their A-level, providing a good indication of what grades they could attain. With the removal of these evaluations, universities have to base their decisions on what a teacher thinks a student will attain — a subjective and often biased system.
The rapid change, brought about by the current Conservative government, has caused chaos. With so much riding on these exams, it would appear no one knows what is going on. Exam boards have been making mistake after mistake, such as a 2016 A-level biology paper that failed to provide a formula it promised it would, leaving students in tears during their exams.
Additionally, with only one set of past papers and one sample paper to attempt before sitting the exams that will determine their future, students are more stressed than ever. During the course of our A-levels, a friend of mine described it as though we were blindfolded going into these exams.
The stressful change has been felt by students, exam boards and teachers alike. Is it any wonder more teens are developing mental health issues? The impact on mental health is evident. According to a YoungMinds report for 2015-16, one in 10 students aged between 5-16 had been diagnosed with a mental health problem. But the real crisis is that only 30% of research is focused on young people, and according to a report by the 2016 children’s commissioner, 75% of those with mental health issues are not receiving treatment. There is undeniable evidence of a crisis of mental health, so why are we doing nothing to address the immediate consequences? How many lives does it take? How many students having breakdowns on a daily basis does it take for change to occur?
The government plans to roll out mental health education in 2020 barely scratch the surface. Mental health provisions are strained, so teaching students to report mental health concerns only means making them wait over 18 weeks for treatment. It would be unspeakable to diagnose a type one diabetic to then tell the patient to wait 18 weeks for insulin. How can we push students to breaking point, only to have them then let down by the national health services?
While private therapy is available for some, those of us who cannot afford it are stuck waiting for help. The student mental health crisis, which can be attributed to A-level reform, is killing people, and countless students are suffering without any help. This is a problem that needs to be addressed before Britain has a mental health epidemic on its hands.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.