At the chalkface: Wellbeing

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:

The prime minister is on the case. Children from the age of four will be given an annual “wellbeing test”. By whom? You, of course. You’ll be trained up and rolled out and on stream by 2020.

Just when you thought there couldn’t be any more tests to teach to, another one comes clanking down the tracks. The WellBeing Test. It will measure “Unwell Being”.

There’s a lot of it about. A recent Action for Children’s survey finds that one in three young people between 13 and 15 are struggling with mental and emotional wellbeing.

The prime minister is on the case. Children from the age of four will be given an annual “wellbeing test”. By whom? You, of course. You’ll be trained up and rolled out and on stream by 2020.

What are the psycho-analytical criteria for this test? Donald Winnicott, Melanie Klein, Alice Miller? It would seem not. We don’t want experts anymore.

Something more flimsy, expedient and mechanistic will suffice. So there will be classes promoting things like “Mental Resilience”. This smacks of the kind of Muscular Christianity, stiff upper lip and repression peddled by my raving grammar school teachers. It drove me half-daft. It’s an initiative that seems keen to promote little more than cheerful acquiescence and servile obedience.

The more conspicuously unhappy or raging will, I suppose, be carted off to small, windowless rooms, where shrinks will give “mindfulness” or “aggression management” workshops and, when that fails, some Ritalin or Beta Blockers – or Nordic walking. That should do it. There will also be a Minister for Suicide Prevention, Jackie Doyle-Price. This would be amusing if it weren’t so grotesquely obscene. This subject is as serious as your life and needs more than another PR exercise.

Hasn’t the government noticed there might be connection between the world outside school and the increasing poor mental health in it, between unfettered free market cruelties and various states of gloom, between the dismantling of public services and the rising rate of suicide? You make lives intolerable and are then surprised that there’s despair. Hasn’t the government also noticed that the world inside school is profoundly unnourishing? Is it any wonder so many inmates go so barmy? These initiatives have woefully narrow and insensitive parameters.

Teenagers probably need to go a bit crazy. It comes with the territory. It needs much deeper understanding. On my PGCE we read Piaget and Klein and had a mesmeric lecture from RD Laing.

Dismissed today as extreme, dangerous and probably mad, he saw schools very much as part of the problem: “We are driving our children mad more effectively than we are educating them,” he said in 1967. “Perhaps it is our way of educating them that is driving them mad.” Silly sixties hyperbole? I’m not so sure anymore.

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.


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