Discipline, Punishment and Mental Health

Is school making our children sick?

In the past 25 years rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers in the UK have increased by 70 per cent. How has society managed to produce a generation of teenagers in which mental-health problems are so prevalent?

Has the depersonalisation of learning and migration to a teacher-centred and curriculum-focused approach to education been a factor in this increase?

This latest article draws on recent research from Stanford University and the work of Paulo Friere and Michel Foucault to explore this phenomenon.

The happiest days of their lives? (credit psykofa.com)

Late last year two 14 year old students at a London state school took their own lives within a fortnight of each other. The second child hung themselves by the neck from a tree in a park opposite the school.

What does this say about our society?

A whistleblower from the school has made a claim that there are teachers who ritually shout at and bully students. That a whistleblower has to make this claim anonymously suggests an under-resourced school that lacks leadership and has a laissez-faire attitude towards child safety and wellbeing. The teaching profession is practiced at closing ranks at the mere mention of teacher on student bullying even though it exists and many have witnessed it.

The rebuttal is that the children are rude, disruptive and badly behaved. The chief culprit of the shouting is convinced that these children are victims of their surroundings and background. The teacher concerned has made the choice, like a missionary, to work in this urban school to lift these young people from their circumstances so that, through tough love, they can meet their true potential.

The teacher in question is clearly unfamiliar with the work of Paulo Friere and his seminal work, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and that’s a problem when we attempt to fast track the teaching profession. Learning theory and the understanding of children goes out of the window, replaced with a measuring stick. Thus the teacher is blind to the reality that it is not the children that are at fault but their own practice. When you shout at someone you simply motivate them to shout back, or worse.

There is a child and adolescent mental health crisis in the United Kingdom, one that our political leaders have acknowledged and paid lip service to but without a solution. In England there is no obligation for schools to retain qualified mental health practitioners as part of the learning team. There are an insufficient number of trained practitioners and this isn’t something that can be taught in an inset day.

British Prime Minister, Theresa May, announces action to improve UK’s mental health

To become an accredited BACP practitioner specialising in early intervention and counselling for children and adolescents takes a minimum of 5 years degree and post-graduate training. The mental health service provision, starved of public funds by a government that has promised to create a shared society that works for everyone, is past breaking point.

In the past 25 years rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers have increased by 70 per cent. How has society managed to produce a generation of teenagers in which mental-health problems are so prevalent?

I am wondering whether the continuous march of standardisation for the aims and means of schooling, along with the deskilling of the teaching profession itself, have a part to play?

The rapid growth of the academy and free school model in the UK takes its cue from the charter school movement in the U.S. and the failed free school movement in Sweden that provides a creeping privatisation of public education. The application of free market economics to the Commons is effectively an attack that pitches school against school in competition with each other. As a result some of these schools are being operated like businesses and, like businesses, they seek the efficiencies commonly found in process standardisation and automation.

It’s important to note that standardisation is not the same as standards, in many cases it’s quite the opposite.

Standardisation seeks homogeneity, an arbitrary “normal”, which works well in a manufacturing context and consequently we are seeing managerial and other processes from the retail and fast food industries being deployed within our schools. It’s just a shame that kids aren’t standardised, in fact the lack of standardisation and the diversity of kids is what has lead to the success of our species so we wouldn’t want to change that would we?

Of course, my question is rhetorical because that is exactly what those who see teaching as more of a delivery system than a craft are attempting with methods that wouldn’t look out of place in some prisons. Such schools pride themselves on being data-driven where they have hijacked the language of assessment and turned it into measurement. To evidence progress everything must be measured and the only thing that counts are grades that parents, teachers, governments and schools collude upon. Personalisation, which is at the heart of good teaching, is chided in exchange for standardisation and the following of rules.

French philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault, in his book Discipline and Punish, argued that the modern state moved away from enforcing their authority physically to enforcing it psychologically.

Interview with Michel Foucault discussing “Discipline and Punish”
spot the difference

Using the example of Bentham’s Panopticon, an institutional building that allowed all inmates to be observed by a single watchman, Foucault noted that efficiencies could be maintained as inmates would assume they are being watched even when not and thus leading to self-governance. The same is true of modern surveillance including video cameras. This means that rules are followed but Foucault believed that there are hugely negative implications. Awareness of being observed, he argued, stifles individuality and creates conformity. People end up acting, thinking and being the same for fear of being punished. He called this “dynamic normalisation” which he determined as fundamentally undemocratic because it ends up eradicating freewill and independent thinking, creating a society of robots.

With that in mind I leave you with these three links; one a recruitment advertisement for a School Detention Director, another about schools in the UK where teachers use body cameras, and then a link to research to show that a brief intervention to encourage empathic discipline cuts suspension rates in half among adolescents.

You decide if you think we’re heading in the right direction.

School Detention Director, Brent — TES Jobs

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