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The UK education system – have we got it wrong?

In terms of the health and well-being of our pupils and teachers, the UK education system is arguably nearing breaking point. Recent reports reveal that up to 54% of teachers state their job ‘often’ or ‘always’ impacts negatively on their mental and/or physical health (OFSTED, 2019).

By Professor Frances Maratos - 4 March 2020

For pupils, the statistics are much worse. One in ten primary aged children, and one in seven secondary aged pupils suffers from a mental disorder. Over the past 15 years, in real terms, this equates to a 15% increase in pupils receiving an official diagnosis (NHS, 2018). So, what is causing this negative mental health spiral in the UK education system?

The security of competition

A lack of funding and investment, pressures on resources, and increasing pupil numbers are of course part of this problem. However, also contributing to the pressures pupils and teachers face – and endemic within the UK system – is the focus on insecure competition. Yet insecure competition is something we can change.

Imagine I want you to achieve the best you can in a new sport – let’s pick running. Every day I work on your technique and provide excellent tuition and coaching. On a weekly basis I measure your performance by making you run a race. Good so far, right?

What I haven’t told you is that each week you’ll be competing against the fastest man in the world (let’s say Usain). I now have two ways of presenting feedback to you. Week after week, I can tell you how you did in comparison to Usain, and guess what, week after week, you lose. Or, I can simply focus on your own progress and present you with your finish times. Sometimes you don’t do too well, but generally your performance improves over the weeks.

Too many times time we put our pupils and teachers in the former situation. We measure teachers and schools by how they perform compared to other schools (the often anxiety-provoking OFSTED report). And we measure pupils by how they perform compared to all other children of their age, and we do this from the age of 6!

This is insecure competition.

Learning from negatives

Too often in the UK education system we create environments that can lead to feelings of shame, criticism, guilt and threat; factors that contribute to poor mental health and increase vulnerability to psychological disorders.

Too little in the UK education system do we create the opposite. That is, environments that are safe, secure and allow children to learn from failure without negative repercussions. This is secure competition.

We put teachers and pupils in environments that promote social incohesion and believe it is beneficial. We put our children in direct competition with each other and expect them to thrive. We put our teachers and schools in direct competition with each other and expect that this will result in a high-performance culture. But it doesn’t. The above statistics reveal that subjecting pupils and staff to repeated insecure competition isn’t working.

Encouraging cohesion

To create an education system in which pupils thrive and teachers remain motivated, we need to create classroom environments where children feel safe, and secure competition is encouraged. We need to create an education system where schools and staff do not live in fear of performance metrics. Rather, to thrive, our pupils and teachers need a system that encourages safety, feelings of security and social cohesion.

But is there any proof for such an approach? In a simple answer, yes, Estonia.

Pupils in Estonia outperform pupils in England massively. In 2016, global tests revealed 15-year-old Estonian pupils ranked 3rd for science and 6th for reading (UK pupils ranked 15th and 22nd respectively). In Estonia, however, the focus on early years education is making children ‘school ready’ – this includes both socially and emotionally. This is a world away from the UK, where at age 6 we put our children in formal testing situations and print each school’s results in a national league table, something Estonia does not do.

More strikingly, in Estonia children are not grouped by level of ability. As one Estonian teacher has reported to the BBC: “If you teach them (children) by different levels of ability, you segregate them. Why would we do that in schools?”

Indeed, what greater way of encouraging social incohesion than segregating children?

Although, you don’t just have to take my word for insecure competition being a bad thing.

Strikingly, Ong Ye Kung, Singapore’s Education Minister, has abolished exams for primary aged pupils in years 1 and 2.


Because, he states simply: “Learning is not a competition”. 

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About the author

Academic Frances Maratos, smiling.

Professor Frances Maratos
Professor of Psychology and Affective Science

Frances Maratos’ research informs applied emotion regulation, compassion and wellbeing interventions worldwide. She is widely published and has excellent grant capture. Frances is the exiting Chair of the College of HPSC Research Committee. Her Professorial appointment reflects not only her international research profile but also her longstanding commitment to the University.

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