Lockdown has meant isolation from school communities. The disparity between students’ academic performance has widened because of a lack of educational resources at home. Furthermore, isolation from teachers and peers has become a catalyst for bringing to light another epidemic; a mental health crisis in teenagers. An NHS digital survey found that for 54.1% of 11 to 16-year-olds with a mental disorder, lockdown had made their lives worse. Dealing with the backlog of mental health issues pre-existing before Covid or stemming from the numerous lockdowns should be the main agenda of schools as they try to get back to a semblance of normality.
Though I haven’t been at school during the Covid epidemic (though my two siblings have), I dealt with mental health issues during sixth form 2017-19. I went to a girls’ private school and was incredibly privileged to have had access to the educational opportunities I did. However, my mental health was the worst it has ever been during those two years. My depression meant I was frequently unable to go into school, do my homework or sit my mock A level exams. The fear of failure was so paralysing that my warped perception was to not sit exams rather than to do badly. I believed any grade under an A or A* was ‘bad’. Then when my A levels were all under these grades (B, B, C), I was so disappointed in myself. I felt like I had wasted money, resources and educational opportunities that another girl could have had access to. Success was so narrow in my mind I was unable to see that actually sitting my A levels was my greatest achievement, regardless of the outcome.
In hindsight, I don’t think my school environment positively affected my perception of what success was. I remember standing outside one English class, anxious to tell my teacher that I had been unable to complete my work for her lesson. I recall sobbing, her staring at me and telling me: ‘you just need to do it, come back into class when you’ve cleaned yourself up’. Though I’m sure her intentions were good, I wish she’d been less cold and had told me that stressing over one piece of work was not worth my mental state declining. Though this seems rather hypersensitive and individualistic, the smallest slight when depressed can ruin your whole day. At that point I was finding it hard to get out of bed and was suffering from constant suicidal ideation. It was an immense success that I was in school at all that day. Despite this, the feelings of shame meant that school taught me how to lie. It taught me how to conceal my emotions and bad mental health from people, to run away from my problems because of punishments and to lie about why my work wasn’t completed.
Success is not a specific mould and exams test one type of academic intelligence. The school system at the moment doesn’t prioritise or give grades for social engagement in the classroom or emotional intelligence which are instrumental later in life. I was consistently told that my engagement in the classroom was fantastic and received top grades in my coursework, including my A level extended essays, but this was undercut because it wasn’t assessed in the way exams were. I have just finished my first year reading English Literature at university. I chose the course because the assessment methods are non-exam based and you have free reign over what you can choose to study and write your essays on. I’ve achieved top marks in all of my essays and have found that my participation in seminars has given me the ability to easily connect with others. My way of approaching learning hasn’t changed, just my environment and shared values on what the purpose of education is within my current institution. I now feel I am very successful. I like who I am, and I am proud to say my mental health has improved dramatically.
I appreciate I attended a particularly grade-chasing school which focussed heavily on league tables rather than the individual, but all schools follow the same examination system. Most of my friends and relatives have navigated the state grammar and comprehensive sectors. Mental health problems are on the rise everywhere.
Overall, if I had any advice for schools or teachers it would be to please, please prioritise your students’ mental health over everything. This in turn will make them perform better academically. Show them that their worth does not purely stem from their grades from exams but an ability to be a good person, to be engaged, to be intellectually curious and to have aspirations whatever they might be.