Storm force TEF

The UK Government’s HE and Research Bill made further progress this week, Jo Johnson outlining a range of amendments to research practices and structures (e.g.,  enshrining the Haldane Principle, although looking at the detail that doesn’t really add up to a tin of beans). There are also plans to strengthen coordination between the Office for Students and UKRI and protect institutional autonomy. All very good, all very “motherhood and apple pie”. What matters in legislation – and I appreciate the number of people who, like me, feel obliged and even slightly enjoy getting down and dirty with the details of Higher Education Bill, is vanishingly small – is not only what structures are put in place but how robust they are when you take into account people’s subsequent behaviour. I have to say I’m still not convinced that efforts to protect the dual funding route will survive for very long; the fine words on Haldane are almost directly at odds with all the other amendments which are focused on making sure research review remains objective. Dual funding won’t survive the demise of HEFCE for long.

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On the education part, there was some tinkering about the details of the TEF… delays, pilots, and a possible change in the metallic ranking of institutions. Personally, I do think they should do away with a gold, silver and bronze rating system and go for something more interesting. How about ranking universities using the Beaufort Scale? It’s a 12 point scale so you can have finer distinctions and it adds a little colour. For instance, you could have a university rated one: light air, at sea, “ripples with the appearance of scales are formed, but without foam crests”. Poetic! I suspect the government would love its universities on Beaufort Scale one; the appearance of innovation, but causing no trouble. Institutions that overstepped the mark could be rated four; “dust and loose paper raised, small branches begin to move”… Sounds a bit like LSE?

At the other end you could have those universities scoring 11 or 12. At sea, greatly reduced visibility. On land, debris and unsecured objects are hurled about. Universities operating at hurricane force will surely incur the wrath of the Department for Education! Never mind that at storm force 10 there is, “considerable tumbling of waves with heavy impact”… Probably not the sort of impact we are wanting, thank you very much.

There is little doubt few in politics are minded to say that the TEF is a bad idea. Why would they? Telling students and their parents (voters) that there isn’t going to be an objective measure of quality assurance for how they spend their money doesn’t feel like a vote winner. And, as often happens in politics, the strange ways in which that system will measure teaching excellence are secondary concern. The list of Russell group institutions opting out of TEF could well start to snowball.

This week you lucky people have an HE Bill double-header… so see below (previous or right) for “The Culkin Degree“.

The Culkin Degree

The eye-catching announcement in the recent list of amendments to the Government’s HE Bill was to make possible two-year degrees. Effectively, the idea is to fast track the undergraduate degree, paying the same amount for three-year degrees (£27,000) but at a cost of £13,500 rather than £9,000 each year. The logic, I think, is that this flexibility permits the brightest and most able students to whiz through university and into the real world as soon as possible. And I suppose there are precedents elsewhere in the education system, but they are unusual. For example, it’s unusual in the UK but elsewhere it is not unheard of for bright students to take their GCSEs, A-levels or equivalents a year early.

There’s an underlying ethos here that education is a means to an end, and not a useful thing in itself. The joy of learning, and of knowledge, is no longer part of the equation. You are paying for a certificate and you want value for money! Why mess around with long university holidays temping at carphone warehouse or engaging in lowbrow repartee with similarly overqualified shelf packers at IKEA, when mummy and daddy had a trust fund so you can avoid all that nonsense? (I should note here, I do see that for some the short-sharp-shock of a 2 year £27k bill might make a certain financial sense for those of more limited means, but I don’t think that is why the ideas is proposed.)

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Anyone who has been to university ought to know that the enduring benefits come from the knowledge you acquire, the friends you make, and the ways you develop personally. I have a few certificates, but I must admit I don’t know where they are at the moment… they are probably in the green box file under the printer (most things are in there). But I value more the friends I made at school and university – especially, although I won’t go into that, over the past, difficult few weeks – and the lessons, sometimes very tough, I learned about myself. I very much believe that my future would have been poorer in many ways, and my prospects diminished, if I had only two years as an undergraduate.

Accelerated degrees are not of themselves a problem. There are two problems. One, more general, which is that across the education system loving to learn has ceased to be the goal. The knowledge, the experience isn’t valued any more. What is valued as the qualification. That is why so many academics revealed total disbelief when students ask them for helpful feedback or expect personal tuition because the knowledge doesn’t matter any more if it doesn’t deliver grade. I don’t know how you fix this one, short of moving to a society where we all just chill out a bit more…

The second problem with two-year degrees is connected with the reason why so few schools favour accelerated pathways to GCSEs and A-levels. Schools, as I said last week, typically recognise that young people’s education isn’t exclusively about the grades. That might surprise some, but I know many teachers and while the pressures on schools to get good grades, and the metrics used to assess them are every bit as pernicious as those which will be employed in the TEF, they recognise too that they have a responsibility for their students well-being. If I’m honest, structures to support students well-being in universities are less effective although they are extensive, and academics have the same concern for their students’ well-being.

We face a crisis in student mental health at all our universities. Beginning life as an independent adult is a testing time. A handful of students at 18 years of age might be able to complete a two year degree without the need for the social, emotional and personal development that’s the space of a three-year degree affords. But the pressure to take a two year degree will be great, particularly on a high achievers, who are likely over represented in the group of young people with mental health problems in education. In my experience it is life – mental health problems, failed relationships, financial problems – that explain educational underachievement for many students: strong universities admit only students who have excelled academically already… it is the rest of life that gets in the way of continuing educational achievement all too often.

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Two-year degrees will compound this crisis and devalue learning. And, anecdotally, child stars in other industries (notably TV and film) do not have a distinguished record of personal and emotional well-being into adulthood. And then there’s that antique expert kid who every Brit of a certain generation knows from Wogan. I am sure some do, but what message do we want to send about the value of education and the value of people? That is the ethos that underlies the current HE bill and explains what it is getting wrong.

Mental Health in Schools

This week, rather than the usual spontaneous musings and rantings, I promised to convert a talk I gave to the WCSiL Conference in London on mental health in schools. Don’t worry… normal service should be resumed next week although this does rather depend on what iniquities life continues to throw at me!

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In the UK one in 10 young people aged 5 to 16 suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder. Nearly 80,000 children and young people, and over 8,000 children under age 10, suffer from severe depression. This number has nearly doubled in the past two decades. One in every 12 children and adolescents deliberately self harm. This figure, too, represents a huge increase in the past 10 years. Nearly 300,000 young people have an anxiety disorder, and one in 10 boys and one in five girls suffer from depression. There has been a near doubling of hospital admissions for teenagers with eating disorders in the past four years. And only 14% of suicides of those under 20 had been in contact with specialist mental health services.The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 10-20% of children and adolescents worldwide experience mental disorders. Half of all mental illnesses begin at the ages of 14-24 years.

There can be little doubt that, in the UK, we are facing a crisis in mental health care. And  at the sharp end of that crisis are Britain’s children, adolescents and young people. The problems they face are not new to those of us at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience nor to those involved in mental health across the country either as researchers or practitioners. Of course many problems stem from inadequate funding – you can find out how much your local health authority spends child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) here.

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Failure to identify mental health problems at an early age exacerbates problems into adulthood. There is a renewed emphasis from research funders in the UK to understand and develop early interventions for mental health problems. The UK government promises a Green paper on mental health in young people this year including the idea of training “mental health first aiders” for all schools. However, there is a clear gap in resources for the delivery of mental health services that cannot be met by research and re-training alone. So, one imagines, the UK government is exploring ways of delivering more mental health provision at a lower cost. An obvious way to do this is to charge schools with responsibility for prevention, identification, and perhaps also support for school pupils with mental health problems.

There is also work needed for schools to address the issue of stigma in mental health. Developmental and social psychological research has learnt a good deal about effective interventions to change attitudes and behaviour in areas such as racial and gender attitudes. However a recent review of interventions to address young people’s beliefs about mental health suggests only patchy positive outcomes. There is an issue of emphasis here: a Royal College of Psychiatry review argues that interventions need to last at least four weeks, that societal contact is not necessarily beneficial, and that whole school and senior leadership support is required for lasting success. Pernicious media representations of mental health influence many people’s beliefs and attitudes towards the mentally ill. In adolescence these representations merely compound stigma and the isolation many young people feel.

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Schools and teachers also have a role in assessing whether the pressure of expectations felt by young people are helpful in their education. The adolescent world, for sure, is awash with expectations: social, academic, family, personal, peer, physical…The transition to university or to work is often a difficult one and schools ought to take some responsibility for preparing their pupils for these transitions. That means not just building resilience but also helping young people to be aware of their own and others’ mental health and how to manage it.

My view is that schools should not be operating at the front line of mental health services; if they are to do so that requires significant resource. Of course, all the teachers I meet care deeply about the young people in their schools and many offer excellent support to their pupils. However, caring for children’s and young people’s mental health is not the purpose of school. The purpose of school is, at least as I was led to believe, to educate. But herein lies a different and more difficult challenge. Because with a current emphasis on academic achievement at all costs schools (and universities) have participated in creating an environment where getting the grades is an end in itself. Parents and the young people themselves participate in this too, but it is the children who face the sharp end of this culture and internalise a pressure cooker environment with inevitably negative consequences for many.

So perhaps the greatest challenge is to start to rethink what our schools should be doing. Should they be pressure cookers for academic excellence? Have we lost a sense in which learning should be fun and that school should be an education not just of facts and grades but about oneself, one’s aptitudes? And the flip side of this, reconciling oneself with inevitable failure at some point… The best schools I have seen, and there are many, are fundamentally communities for mutual support and learning where children and adolescents enjoy their education without the pressure of achieving the highest grades at all costs. They are places where pupils love learning and feel happy and safe.

I promised a list of resources associated with this talk. Here they are, in no particular order:

WHO Atlas: Child and Adolescent mental health resources

UK DfE

Mental Health in International Schools

Reducing stigma about mental health in schools

Young Minds BOND initiative

British Psychological Society Promoting Mental health in Schools 

King’s, IoPPN website

What happened to the Danny Zuko I met at the beach?

When Sandra Dee met Danny Zuko at the beach “somethin’ begun”. She nearly drowned, he showed off. They got friendly: there was hand holding, late nights (well, until ten o’clock, which is technically late evening), cramp. He splashed around, she got her suit damp… oh, behave, it wasn’t like that!  But then, would you believe it (no) Sandy turned up at Rydell High with what, in 1959 California, was the most impossibly exotic Australian accent? And Danny played it way too cool. The Danny Zuko that Sandy had met at the beach had morphed into the delinquent love child of Shakin Stevens and Tara Reid. Turned out he wasn’t that into bowling and lemonade after all. No, Danny had history, and an interest in cars and illegal drag racing. Sandy, to put it mildly, was disappointed.

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We all encounter disappointment in our lives. Whether it’s disappointment with something, someone or oneself, in the end we have to understand the reasons for it, live with it and learn from it. And of course there is a whole range of healthy to unhealthy ways of living with it, and a similar range of successful to unsuccessful ways of learning from it. You can adjust things based on what you learn; you can realise that something wasn’t important, or that your expectations of someone or of yourself were unrealistic or unreasonable. There you go; the beginners’ guide to CBT.

We’ll come back to how Sandra Dee handled her disappointment. For now, let’s consider how we deal with disappointment in the academy because, disappointment, is part and parcel of academic life: paper and grant rejections, results you didn’t expect to get (although they can be the most interesting results… save us from registered reports). And academics also often share disappointments with those exotic phantasms from the “real world” like missing out on promotion, romantic failures, politics. What, broadly, are the ways of living with disappointment?

Well (1) you can suck it up. That can work, but not always. It depends, I suspect, on how robust your self-confidence is, but it’s arguably a healthy response if there is no collateral damage. You can (2) choose to externalise – share the load! You can (a) moan a lot (kind of works short term, but you’ll need to find a way to resolve it in the end), (b) start attacking the source of the disappointment or the person you believe was responsible for it. On the plus side, there are lots of creative ways you can do this which can range from a frank conversation to spreading rumours and conspiracy theories). Of these options, (a) is certainly preferable; with (b) you end up irrevocably diminished in others’ eyes. Option (2) is unhealthy because you’re unlikely to learn much about yourself or others and that makes it likely that you’ll be disappointed again. Your third option (3) is to learn from it, understand why it happened, and act to change. That’s the healthiest, so long as you do the learning honestly and objectively.

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A couple of months ago one academic described how he had sold out his research in response to years of disappointment at failure to get funding, and started working in an area that would be more lucrative. I thought at the time that this perhaps made some sense in personal career terms, but that it was also perhaps a little sad. We all need to adapt, but if we end up going chasing the money and forget about the things that made us passionate about research in the first place, academic life loses a lot of its charm, diversity and a fair chunk of its potential to innovate too. Informed transformation is a good way to avoid and manage disappointment but  total submission to a notoriously fickle funding culture can backfire in the longer term.

Anyway, that’s how Sandra Dee dealt with her disappointment; she chose to change. Specifically she transformed her image to win back Danny. To be fair, Danny also changed his image in a bid to win Sandy back. However in a sartorial metonym for 20th-century gender role power dynamics, Danny’s transformation just involved a cardigan. Sandy’s involved a lycra cat-suit, scalp-tight perm and piercings. Sandy’s transformation was, well, more transformative.

It all worked out in the end of course – Sandy and Danny drove off into a dreamy celestial future (although, had they known that the real future was Xanadu and Scientology, they might have turned back, got their heads down, worked harder, and got themselves into university). Still, it was a million times better than Grease 2. Now that was disappointing!

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