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All work and no play: How metrics fixation stunts Britain's school kids

Creativity, curiosity, self-esteem and social skills are essential for our well-being - but because they are not quantifiable, they are being left behind. 

November 02 2023, 12.46pm

From the moment they’re born through to the day they leave education, a child in England will be measured via tests including - but not limited to - early years development goals; SATS; CATs; GCSEs; EBacc; AS- and A-levels. The results of which will go on to be used, not only as a marker of academic ability but as a means by which for government departments such as Ofsted or the United Kingdom Statistics Authority to assess how well a school is performing, or how a certain demographic measures up against the next.

But while using data to ensure evidence-based decision making is necessary for obvious reasons, even Einstein noted that “not everything that counts can be counted.” A four-year-old’s grasp of phonics can be measured, and starting salaries can be compared, but a person’s emotional intelligence; creativity; self-esteem; social skills; curiosity and wellbeing are not quantifiable. You’d think that these qualities - the very qualities that make us human - should be prioritised, but they are being devalued and downgraded in policies across sectors, from the care system to education to town planning. 

In England, for instance, an absence of any statutory requirement to consider a child’s right to enjoy freedom to play has led to streets dominated by traffic and pollution and playgrounds which are poorly maintained or closed down entirely. As a result, just 27% of children regularly play outside their homes today (in the past, that figure was 80%), the impact of which is disproportionately felt by children from lower-socio-economic backgrounds who are less likely to have gardens, more likely to live on housing states where recreational spaces are often tokenistic and more likely to have used youth clubs for socialising, funding for which was cut by 74% from 2010-21

Depriving children of the right to play not only contravenes article 31 of the United Nation Convention of the Rights of the Child, but threatens their psychological and emotional development. “The young of every species play at the skills that are most important for their survival,” says Peter Gray, research professor of psychology and neuroscience at Boston College. “Predatory animals play at chasing while prey animals play at dodging.” Humans’ ability to survive depends on our ability to get along with peers, he says, which is why children have a natural and powerful drive to play with other children. Through play, they learn how to regulate their emotions; how to know what other people need from them and how to relate in order to feel ‘connectedness’ - one of our three basic psychological needs, according to the self-determination theory. 

The other two needs: autonomy and competence also require play in order to develop because play is by definition self-chosen and outside of authoritative control. “When children learn how to initiate and direct their own activity, they acquire confidence that they can manage at life,” says Gray. Over time, this allows for the development of an ‘internal locus of control’, “which is the sense that you can control your own life, you’re not a victim of outside circumstances.” So when we continually deprive children of the freedom to play, says Gray, “we should not be at all surprised that they are suffering at record levels from anxiety and depression” (18% of 7-16-year-olds had a probable mental health disorder in 2022).

While space to play is on decline, so is the time - the years spent at school have increased, with children in England now starting at four and leaving at 18 (16 in Scotland and Wales); as have the hours, with schools in England now having to offer a 32.5 hour week as standard. And school is no place to play, with research by the Nuffield Foundation finding that break-times have been reduced by up to an hour over the past 20 years, with almost 60% of schools withholding break times from children as a form of punishment.

A numbers game

While the average age to start primary education across the EU is six, in the UK it’s just four, with a curriculum that puts little emphasis on play. At Lydia Lopez’s previous role, a primary school in Kent, play-based learning was the priority for the youngest pupils, “but we had to fight hard for it,” she says, in part because nearby primary schools had reverted to a more academic approach, so when prospective parents toured her setting, “it just looked like children on their break time.”But while it was a challenge to prove to Ofsted that their pupils were meeting their ‘development goals’, children in her setting were doing incredibly well, says Lopez, as they were given the time to develop skills such as emotional regulation.

“We must allow children the freedom to develop on their own terms if we want confident, capable and emotionally stable adults” 

“You can teach a child about emotions, but it's a very abstract concept until they've gone through it and understood how to deal with it themselves,” she says. When we impose an academic approach too soon, she adds, we not only risk applying undue pressure (she recalls one four-year-old who would cry when asked to hold a pencil), but end up valuing “their ability to hold information in and recite it,”more than their creativity; their sociability and their “natural motivation to learn”. 

Gray agrees that the frameworks we impose on children do not tally with “natural human behaviour.” Children and indeed adults do not derive happiness from doing things they think they have to do in order to make the grade, make money etc, he says, “but when they are doing things that bring satisfaction from the very doing.” Rather, this micro-managed approach stems from a government desire to measure and, to some extent, parental concern that if their child does not excel academically, they will have fewer opportunities in life. 

But this “propaganda” about school success, says Gray, isn’t backed up by data; indeed in England, grammar school places are fiercely competed for - places have risen to meet demand by 19% since 2010 and almost a third of students who receive private tutoring do so to help pass school entrance exams. But recent research by Durham University found there is actually no clear evidence that selective schools have a positive impact on student outcomes. What they do create, though, is a system that entrenches inequality (the Sutton Trust found that only 11% of students who receive tutoring have working-class parents, while the BBC reported that fewer than 5% of grammar school students come from deprived backgrounds) and puts pressure on children to succeed.

Seventy-eight percent of respondents to a Mind survey said that school made their mental health worse, with pressure to achieve academically being a factor. In the 12 years Helen Shaw* has taught English at a secondary school in London, she has seen a deterioration in mental health. “Around exam results day you always see a headteacher online saying, ‘You are more than just your grade’,” says Shaw. “But in every other moment throughout education that’s counteracted. It is all about the grades and students are very aware of that.” As are teachers, she adds, explaining that at one point at her school, staff had to ensure each of their students met a certain grade before they could move up the pay scale. 

Measures to help students with their mental health are in place but there is a “factory-style environment” at the school, she says, where pupils per classroom has increased while break times have been reduced to 45 minutes. The teaching of core subjects has also gone up, she says - from six to eight hours per fortnight for English - “and that time needs to be taken from somewhere, so it’s usually from the arts.” And while she is passionate about her subject and her students, she fears her lessons have at times, “had the life drained out of them,” partly through the requirement to prove to Ofsted that she is preparing pupils for exams from an increasingly early age. So GCSE preparation, for instance, now starts in year 9 rather than year 10, meaning that Shaw’s students will be revisiting the same English literature text for three years. “I’m lucky in that [by working in a local government authority school] I’m still allowed to pick some of the texts I teach, but at academies the teacher usually has to use an approved PowerPoint presentation.”

Good intentions gone too far

Angelus Agdopul attends Launceston College in Cornwall, an academy that has generated headlines due to its draconian behaviour policy. It’s a dehumanising environment, he says, where “we are just numbers”. Agdopul was home-schooled from the age of eight, joining Launceston College at 15 in order to take his GCSEs. The freedom he enjoyed compared to his day-to-day life now is stark, but is one reason why he can see so clearly the damage this approach is doing to children. “People spend their whole childhood in this system but the lack of creative subjects and the lack of freedom means you don't have the time to develop your own interests,” he says. A deprivation in itself, but “then you’re being asked to decide on your career in year 11.” Agdopul’s family paid for him to take film studies GCSE privately; something he is aware is incredibly fortunate, given that most school children today “could be the next Stephen Spielberg and never know.” (The number of students taking arts GCSEs has fallen by 40% since 2010.)

Steps that could be taken to reintroduce freedom, play and creativity into children’s lives include following the UN’s recommendation to write play into the early years curriculum so as to make it a statutory requirement, and to ban practices that contribute to high levels of stress, such as the 11+. The call for ending grammar schools is longstanding, but Bridget Phillipson, Shadow Secretary of State for Education has stated that structural reform is not a policy priority (but Labour has pledged to ensure children study a creative subject or sport until 16). Many believe structural reform is precisely what’s needed however, to end selective schools as well as move away from government-controlled academies and back to LGA schools.

From a broader community perspective, Scottish and Welsh governments have introduced ‘play sufficiency’ quotas meaning there is a statutory duty for planning departments to consider whether children are being given the freedom to play - a move urgently needed in England. The Children’s Rights Alliance for England also argue that a cabinet minister for children must be introduced, whose responsibility it would be to ensure the Convention on the Rights of the Child is implemented, as is the case in Scotland and Wales.

In its broadest and most optimistic sense, we are in a situation where, as Gray puts it, “good intentions [have] gone too far.” The government wants to check the efficacy of systems while parents want their children to ‘achieve their full potential’. But we must allow children the freedom to develop on their own terms if we want confident, capable and emotionally stable adults, (not to mention ones that have the edge over AI); to do that, we must start counting what can’t be counted. 

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