However, there is one change which appears less positive. Our state and independent senior schools have increased in size in a way that most primary and prep schools have not. Since 1950, there has been little upward movement in the size of our primary schools, while our senior schools have tripled in size. And yet, we do not seem to have asked ourselves, as educators or as parents, if that is what’s best for our teens?
This huge increase has been driven by economies of scale, rather than seeking the optimum environment for our teenagers. What is the evidence that our teenagers are thriving in their enormous schools? Or that they are better equipped than their younger siblings to handle a larger social group than most adults would ever contend with?
In the last decade, on top of navigating social situations in year groups of hundreds, our teenagers have been grappling with more complex social relations. They are bombarded by social media and are less sure than ever of where ‘they fit’. Little wonder then, that there is a well-documented decline in the happiness of our teens. Mental Health Foundation CEO Mark Rowland said: “Our survey highlights just how vulnerable young people are to mental health problems. It shows how much pressure young people are feeling to be a success. The pressure to conform to an ideal body image is also intense. Moreover, it is shocking how many young people have self- harmed or had suicidal thoughts due to stress.”
The response from our institutions and government is to continually increase the amount of time we ‘teach’ teenagers about stress, anxiety, and mental health. But it appears this approach is not working. In fact, there is strong evidence that for some mental health issues, there is an element of social contagion. A worrying example of this is the explosion of teenage girls presenting to GPs with tics, having spent time viewing influencers explaining their own tics.
I can’t help asking myself – would a better strategy be to rethink the teenage experience, in order to reduce the negative external factors in the first place? Can we make the teenage experience less stressful, less negative, less complex? After all, if we had an epidemic of teenagers unable to reach classrooms due to buildings with no lifts or stairs – would we adjust the building design, or insist PSHE includes flying lessons?