From teacher stress to pupil burnout, we need to rethink our approach to schooling and education.
The pressure of repeated exams is known to correlate with increased stress and anxiety among pupils. A study in the UK reported that 94% of teachers believe pupils are driven toward stress-related conditions during exam season.
A compounding problem is that exams are not always the best way to measure progress. The tests themselves can only measure particular kinds of knowledge examined in particular – and largely artificial – conditions. They do not measure many other skills a pupil may have such as emotional intelligence, team-ethics, or practical abilities. And, perhaps most troubling of all, exams set up pupils in a competition against one another. From an early age, pupils are encouraged to see one another as competitors for praise and reward.
Although everyone has a right to an education, right to a good education is out of the reach of many. In countries across the world those who can afford to will send their children to the best schools. There they will often form connections with people of influence, learn “cultural capital”, and go on to attend the best colleges and universities. From an early age, children are being stratified and segregated. A UNESCO report in 2021 found that the attainment between fee-school educated and state-school educated pupils is growing and that a lack of regulation of the private school sector is leaving many parents out of pocket as fees rise disproportionately.
Long hours, low pay, regular inspections, and the “targetisation” of teaching has led to many teachers feeling burned out. A global study carried out before the Covid pandemic found that roughly 1 in 5 teachers feel unhappy and the anxiety levels amongst teachers is above the average for other professions. Various national studies from across the world suggest that the wellbeing of teachers in their countries is in decline. See, for example, these reports from China, Thailand, England, Germany, and the USA.
An emphasis on grading pupils can mean that their holistic development and growth gets overlooked. Philosopher Yuval Noah Harari has argued that instead of seeking to equip children with skills that might become obsolete, schools should focus on durable abilities like creativity and care. The writer Alice O’Keefe has also made the case for a much greater effort to help children understand their minds and bodies. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world, schools are heading in the opposite direction. Funding cuts in Britain, for example, mean half of schools are set to lose counselling and mental health support for their pupils while mental health investment was one of the victims in the recent school budget cuts in the USA.
Discrimination is rife in education settings across the world. A UNICEF report in 2022, for example, found that amongst 7-14 year olds in low- and middle-income countries, pupils from the most advantaged group were more than twice as likely to have foundational reading skills than those from the least advantaged. Meanwhile in disciplinary policies in the United States, Black children are almost four times more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions than white children, and more than twice as likely to face school-related arrests, the report notes. And a new U-Report poll generating more than 407,000 responses found that almost two thirds feel discrimination is common in their