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Are we pushing kids too hard?

Is our obsession with exams equipping our kids for the competition of life, or pushing them to an early breakdown? We ask Mr Terence Ayres, Head of Leehurst Swan School in Salisbury for his views.

Has there ever been a more nail-biting time to be a parent? Hard to do right for doing wrong and they’ll hate us all in the end anyway! When I was at school I never really remember my mum and dad making much of a fuss about my grades – much like in my free time, I was kind of left to get on with it. But parenting is a competitive sport these days and academic achievement remains the highest accolade, even as we see unprecedented levels of stress in children at school.

There’s no fast easy answer to questions about whether we push children too hard – your view will depend on your own values – but I thought it would be an interesting question to pose to one of the leading school Heads in the region. Food for thought? Let me know what you think below.

Muddy Stilettos: Has the ethos of teaching changed?

Terence Ayres: We have seen a huge change in ethos which in my view has had one main driver. This has been the drive towards examination success rather than educational excellence and there is a distinct difference between the two. During my time in the profession, the emphasis has shifted away from cultivating and enriching young minds and moved towards examination excellence where young minds are shaped by the parameters which are defined by test criteria. The biggest casualty of all this is excellence and enjoyment as teachers are forced into a position where results are the priority rather than the educational journey travelled. I recently travelled to Zambia and was fortunate enough to spend a few days on safari. On our first day our guide was given the co-ordinates of a sighting of wild dogs which, I am told, is quite a rare sight. Our guide had a choice between racing to those co-ordinates ignoring all the other amazing wildlife we may encounter on the way to allow us to experience this rare sighting or to proceed to the co-ordinates but taking in each amazing sight along the way. He chose the latter and not only did we see the wild dogs, but we also observed young elephants enjoying a spot of mischief in the water, a leopard stalking and moving in for a kill and lions relaxing in the midday sun. The point being, to quote Arthur Ashe, ‘success is a journey and not a destination’ and as schools we must make sure that we create excellent educational journeys which live in the memory and will inevitably lead to examination success as a by-product.

Are kids put under too much pressure (to achieve exams/gain secondary places/Sixth Form places)?

I think the obvious answer is yes, but I feel this needs to be caveated with the fact that being under pressure in a safe environment such as school provides good learning for adult life. I meet with a number of CEOs and Managing Directors in my role as Headmaster and a concern that has been expressed to me is resilience levels in young people. They are increasingly finding that many of the young people they appoint don’t have the strategies to cope with high-pressure or stressful situations which in turn has a knock-on effect to others in their companies. The ultimate goal for a school is to prepare young people for adult life and that means providing them with the strategies they need to manage highly pressurised and stressful situations. A little pressure is not a bad thing and as we all know, diamonds are formed through the application of intense heat, pressure and time.

Do parents interfere too much in their children’s extracurricular interests?

I feel that there is a huge pressure on parents to provide their children with as many opportunities as they possibly can and, as a result, we see parents enrolling their children in a wide range of extra-curricular activities. Parents increasingly feel that their child’s achievement and future happiness depends on their success as parents at providing their child with the right opportunities, therefore we shouldn’t be surprised that this can overspill into interference. As a Headmaster and a Dad, I would always advise parents to enrich their sons and daughters lives with experience and activity but also give them opportunities to be bored at home, as this often nurtures creativity which is essential for success in adult life.

What are the effects of undue parental pressure?

They can be very serious and can lead to self-esteem and mental health issues, sleep deprivation and physical, compulsive behaviours. It’s healthy to want to bring out the best in your child but sometimes parents put children under so much pressure to perform well that their children suffer serious consequences. Parents need to be supportive, have high expectations but most importantly create an environment where their children feel confident to fail and learn from it. I believe it was J K Rowling who was quoted as saying that it was impossible to live without failing, unless we live so cautiously that we might not have lived at all, in which case we have failed by default.

What about kids that are happy just studying?

Let them study but make sure they don’t make study the only string to their bow. There are lots of children who love to study, and this should be praised but, in an increasingly competitive market, it is important that young people demonstrate they have a range of interests which make them more than a one-dimensional character. Tap into what interests them and provide the opportunities, even if they are study related, to nurture these.

How can families motivate kids without creating anxiety and stress?

Motivation is about instilling a desire in a young person to achieve something so I would always encourage families to actively involve their son or daughter in real-life experiences that they engage with. For example, if university is an aspiration then immerse your son or daughter in the sights, sounds and history of the university town or city you visit. If they connect with the place, it provides them with the intrinsic motivation to achieve the standard required to gain a place. Motivating young people is about giving them real-life experience and nurturing a desire to succeed whilst removing the fear of failure. I am a firm believer that if you remove the fear of failure, stress and anxiety never enter the equation.

Is the mental health crisis in children being overblown?

Good mental health is as important as good physical health and it is important that we continue to take this issue seriously. As with climate change and politics, mental health is an issue that our young people take seriously and are engaging with and that is something I admire. If young people are verbalising the concerns they have surrounding their own mental health, then we have an excellent chance of providing them with the support they require.

Located in a quiet residential neighbourhood overlooking Salisbury with eye-catching views of the cathedral, Leehurst Swan is an all-through, co-ed day school for Reception children to Year 11 which, with its original Victorian family home main building plus fresh and modern new builds, combines a homely atmosphere with a shipshape sense of purposeful activity. Read the Muddy review here and book in for their next Open Mornings Sat 29th February and Thurs 5th March.

Leehurst Swan School, 19 Campbell Road, Salisbury, Wilts SP1 3BQ,  tel: 01722 333094,

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