At the start of the week I attended the Girls’ Schools Association Conference in Oxford where GSA President Carol Jordan spoke about her concerns about young people’s mental health, particularly with regard to the changes in grading of GCSE exams this summer. She said: “The pressures on pupils today are enormous and the statistics on mental health must not be swept under the carpet. It worries me that the movement away from alphabetical grades at GCSE to numerical grades, and particularly the controversial Grade 9, will place even more pressure on young people. Indeed, it seems certain that it will do just that, when you consider that the new Grade 9 will be awarded to only 20 per cent of those who would have achieved A* to A under the existing system. It’s right that we have rigour. It’s not right that we make our children ill in the process. I am worried for all those pupils with a tendency towards perfectionism, many of whom we know to be girls.”
Our Year 11 girls will be the first cohort to be awarded the new numerical grades: as they started their mock exams this week perhaps the time is ripe for some consideration of the trend of ‘perfectionism’ that Carol Jordan mentions.
As parents and teachers we often say that we want young people to do their best and make the most of their opportunities, but above all to be well and happy. We repeat that balance is important – that time spent studying needs to be offset with playing sport or catching up with friends. But do we really walk that talk? Are our girls hearing the message?
There are warning signs that we are not always getting it right. Recent research by the DfE found one in three teenage girls suffers from “psychological distress” by the time they start studying for their GCSEs – 37 per cent of Year 10 girls are experiencing some sort of symptom of mental ill health. The study of 30,000 teenagers showed that girls were more than twice as likely to suffer from psychological distress than boys, of whom just 15 per cent said they were affected by symptoms, such as feeling worthless or unhappiness.
Being a perfectionist should not be confused with being achievement oriented. High achievers set tough goals and work hard to realise them, but they are not shattered when their results slightly miss the mark. Perfectionists see any mistake as a failure and despise themselves for anything that doesn’t measure up. It is in all our interests to avoid perfectionism in our girls. To be innovative, meet the challenges to come and develop the next generation of leaders and thinkers, we need creative thinkers and risk takers, not young people paralyzed by stress and fear.
We need to continue to provide girls with good quality help and advice in school. We will try to help them develop healthy study habits and a growth mindset. We want to be alert to warning signs that an individual may be struggling and we of course rely on parents’ support here too. Let’s encourage a sense of perspective around exams and results and not be afraid to say that we are all worth so much more than simply our grades. In Einstein’s words: “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.”