Students are at breaking point in a broken system | Letters

I too have a daughter who, though creative and gifted, cannot do squiggles on paper, has spent 12 years of her life learning that she’s “thick” and “useless” and is about to sit – and likely fail – her GCSE maths for the third time (GCSEs are failing stress test as students suffer, Letters, 22 May).

I also had a mother who was president of the Mathematical Association and brought the International Mathematical Olympiad to Britain, and a sister who sat on Tony Blair’s Tomlinson commission, which recommended a much broader mix of academic and vocational skills for all children – and was promptly ignored. My mother, a great teacher, always said there was no point in forcing children who struggle with maths to do it, and always began her classes with an example from their own lives which made it “relatable”.

Twenty years ago, we were told vocational courses were old hat and what we needed were “knowledge workers” who could sit at screens and process information. Today, all that “knowledge work” is about to be taken away by computers, and the jobs crying out to be filled are for plumbers, electricians, engineers and other skilled trades: the things hardest to automate.

And what are we being sold meanwhile? “Flexibility”, which is another word for “unskilled”. If you need to be “flexible” because “who knows what the future will bring?”, what point is there in acquiring any expertise? Yet another generation of rudderless, vulnerable young people prevented from exercising their abilities by yet another generation of recklessly irresponsible politicians in thrall to ideology. I’m glad my mum’s not alive to see what her granddaughter and her peers are put through.
Sheila Hayman
Director’s fellow, MIT Media Lab

As the Guardian letters page on 22 May made clear, year 11 students are suffering high levels of crippling stress, something I see each week in my work as a school counsellor. While the new arrangements that have emerged from the accountability regime cannot be defended and clearly need urgent attention, counselling can provide an effective way to work with the most overstressed students. It is, therefore, surprising that the recent phase two report of the Care Quality Commission’s children and young persons’ mental health review, published in March, makes little reference to the part that school-based counselling may play in helping students. A trained counsellor in every English secondary school would be a welcome starting point in tackling the current mental health crisis in young people.
Stephen J Decker

Chartered psychologist, Chelmsford

Your front-page report on depression risk for bright girls and girls from poor families (19 May) made painful reading. I study all too many such articles since my son took his own life last year. He was a second year student of maths and philosophy, a high achiever with all A*s at A-level and on course for a first at a Russell Group university.

The causes seem to be financial hardship and pressure at school. This is evident at my children’s school, once a relaxed environment with excellent pastoral care, but now short of funds. It is brimming with information on exams, work experience and internships, as our children are shoehorned into an ever more exacting exam system and culture. They are referred to as students from a young age – where has their childhood gone?

With such a strong emphasis on hard work, they can arrive at university with a neurotic need to spend more time than is healthy in the library to get that essential first-class degree. Universities are struggling with an epidemic of anxious students taking antidepressants and requiring counselling services.

If girls are more at risk at school, young men are more at risk when they get to university, presumably because girls mature earlier than boys, but they face the same social, academic and financial pressures.

I live in a small, affluent town of just under 10,000 people and I know too many bereaved parents like myself. We are mourning a young schoolgirl in her early teens and two male university students, from one school and in a two-year time frame. We don’t need to fund more studies, we need to address the pressures at school and university, urgently.
Name and address supplied

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Hotlines in other countries can be found here.

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