A Head Master Writes - The Sunday Times blog

A blog by Head Master Andrew Halls is being published on The Sunday Times’ website. Subscribers to The Times Online can click on the link from the Parent Power page of the Sunday Times.

Strength and self-belief can help the UK’s young people be happy again

23rd March 2014

Since I wrote my previous blog about this week’s True Grit conference at King’s, I have been a little surprised by the media interest in the topic of emotional resilience, writes Andrew Halls. The conference was covered at length in the press this week, and within two days I had given twelve radio or television interviews. Towards the end of this marathon, I no longer felt any confidence that anything I said made much sense.

However, I certainly meant what I said at the conference in the opening speech.

I told delegates from 200 schools that one in ten of our young people suffer from mental health problems, and that by coming together for the conference I hoped we could help compassionate and diligent staff from maintained and independent schools think further about how we can help the pupils most at risk of a collapse in self-belief.

We know that girls from aspirational families are the fastest-growing group using mental health services, as they strive to achieve more and more impossibly brilliant results. We know that boys and young men are much more affected by body image pressures than was the case twenty years ago. And now we know that this can afflict the public school 1st XV hero addicted to fitness routines and diet supplements just as much as it does the forgotten boy slumped in the corner of a comprehensive school locker-room.

And we know that social networking sites require every 21st century teenager to live his or her life under the eye of an electronic adjudicator far more cruel and censorious than any examiner, school teacher or parent. No previous generation has spent so long on-line, “liking” and being “liked”, or devastatingly ignored, in the OCD world of never-ending updates, status change, Instagram, AskFM, Little Gossip and Facebook.

We know that the problems cut through class and gender stereotypes: almost every bright sixth former from an affluent family will know of someone who is suffering from a body-image related problem. But we also know that the UK invariably tops Europe’s league table for teenage suicides, and these are frequently of less well educated or less affluent children.

We know that according to a study by the Department of Work and Pensions, published last week, almost a quarter of children are growing up in households where their parents are unhappy in their relationship. The percentage is worse among children from low-income families. Children growing up in unstable families are at greater risk of mental health problems or drug and alcohol abuse.

So these issues affect everyone, children and parents, in 21st century Britain – not just dysfunctional homes, and not just affluent ones. The democracy of the internet has seen to that.

But I did not want the conference to be a day of handwringing: quite the reverse. The aim of every speaker was not just to diagnose a sickness, but to suggest cures.

The thought I shared with delegates was that the 21st century seems to have started on a note of hopelessness for too many young people, and this is one of the issues we need to address in our schools and homes. For example, I recently visited a school and saw some of the most fantastic artwork on the walls. One of the pictures showed what I suspect was the artist herself crouched down as if under assault, with her folded arms and clenched fists completely hiding her face. It reminded me of a painting I had seen at another school: this time the pupil had shown their whole face, and it was an attractive face, but they had scoured onto the canvas their own graffiti of self-loathing and contempt. “I am so ugly” was the least troubling of the phrases I read. I suspect every teacher at the conference will have seen a school art exhibition where at least one of the children has painted themselves covering their face as if making some form of barrier between them and a world that hurts and assails them. Such paintings speak with wordless clarity of a community where the individual self is frail, breakable and victimised.

The issue is not just the cult of self-consciousness that torments our young people. They know that the world is competitive, and they are surrounded by images not just of the impossibly beautiful but of the incredibly wealthy, or the incredibly bright. How can they compete?

Then they see in their school a thousand posters admonishing human beings for their part in global warming, famine, pollution, over-population and war. We mean well when we lecture our pupils in this way, but to what degree do we present them with a challenge that seems so impossible that the only response is to crouch with arms crossed before their eyes?

It doesn’t have to feel like this. I wonder if the 1980s have something to say to us? It was the decade of Band Aid optimism and purpose, and young people felt they really could make things better for other people. Eastern Europe thawed – because individuals gathered to defy injustice. They didn’t crouch against a wall and close their eyes. Far from it: the Berlin Wall itself crumbled under the weight of individual free will and resolution. Cold war tyrants fell without their countries immediately descending into bloody chaos. Individuals really seemed to have a voice, and we need to recreate that sense of personal meaning in the 21st century.

For me, the conference we held was all about positives: how we can help young people rise above despair, focus on their own strengths, and win the battle of life. But individuals need societies; they need communities, fellowships, families, or friends. They can be strong, but they need support, too.

That is where our schools provide lessons that are far deeper and richer than just double maths on Monday afternoon. A good school is a community. It is a place where every child feels they have a role, every child is trusted, every child believed in, every child known and recognised, and every child can be celebrated. A school has failed every important test if the children within it feel unnoticed or overlooked. A good school should be, in the words of Jean-André Prager, a boy who left King’s a few years ago, and who addressed the conference with memories of his own school days, “a community of kindness”. Unless we create that, we have created nothing.

Andrew Halls

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