Moving up by slowing down

I had a wonderful slow holiday. Lots of reading, even more sleeping, some baking (when it’s not been too hot), an appropriate amount of exercise, inappropriate amounts of food, watching cricket (the unadulterated 5 day test match sort, not the WHAM BAM variety) and of course plenty of coffee. It was quite similar to my last Christmas holiday actually, I found this old tweet from a year ago.Holiday tweet

It seems a long time ago and I fear that I am already relying on too much caffeine than can be good for me.  One of my favourite haunts to put the mocha back in my Java is nearby Café Bloom.  Its coffee is decent, but more importantly the philosophy of life it serves up and embodies is appetising. Café Bloom espouses the notion of slow food.  Not slow service necessarily, but rather taking the time to do things properly. This means simply that there are no short cuts in food preparation, the organically grown food is sourced locally (often right outside the door) and served seasonally. It is essentially cuisine that is the very opposite of fast food.

I don’t get much time to visit in the term time and (ironically) I am usually rushing if I am there at all. Mostly back to work for a class, or a meeting, or a coaching session, or assembly or an appointment or (very) occasionally to do some marking. A cappuccino ‘to go’ is my drink of choice. It was no surprise then that Mick, the owner questioned why I almost always ask for a take away as opposed to taking a table. Reflecting on his observation I was reminded of the pace that we move at through life. This is true in our schools as a microcosm of society, as much as it is in the wider world.

Denise Clark Pope argues in her book ‘Doing School’, that as a society we are ‘…creating a generation of stressed out, materialistic, and miseducated students’. In many of our schools there are strong expectations placed on performance and achievement; these in turn seem to create a fast paced life-style. My question is just how corrosive is this success driven focus and is it really in the best interests of education and the students themselves?

It would seem not. Astonishingly the United Nations estimates that fully one in five people have suffered from a mental health disorder by the time they are 18. In the United Kingdom the government used to survey the mental health of its teenage population, they stopped this in 2004 and the cynics would say this is because they did not want to see the results. Guardian writer, George Monbiot’s excellent article on the dangers of aspirational parenting considers the fact that in the UK, hospital beds for teenage mental health patients have increased 50% since 1999 and they still can’t cope with demand. It also appears that eating disorders have doubled in the last 3 years and self-harm has increased by 68% over the last 10.Doing school book

If this is the case, what is it about society and how young people are schooled (in the broadest sense) that has contributed to this epidemic. There are varied pressures on young people, lack of appropriate parental involvement (for whatever reasons) is one, but there are also concerns around the influence of technology and commercial pressures. Is it right for example that children in the  Western world view up to 40,000 adverts in a year? Or that they cram 8.5 hours of screen time into 6.5 hours through the phenomenon of ‘two screening’? What interests me in particular however is how young people feel under increasing pressure at school and from an early age. In the sense that schools reflect society, there is little need to make a case that much pressure comes from the need to get ahead and make a success of yourself. Parent and schools expect it. Universities and the job market demand it.

As a school counsellor I often see what I believe are the results of this pressure, as I know my colleagues do around the country. Across the nation depression and, in particular, anxiety are no strangers to the school campus. This academic non-stop merry go round where students deal with the twin anxieties of trying to keep up and simultaneously deal with the resulting threat of almost continuous judgement can take its toll on many. In his thoughtful book ‘What’s the point of school?’ author Guy Claxton says, “In a nutshell, young people are stressed. Psychologists tells us that stress is what happens when the demands made on you exceed the resources you have to meet them…getting drunk, depressed or aggressive are increasingly desperate attempts to avoid the self-criticism that comes from not feeling up to dealing with life’s problems”.

In almost all schools, testing and assessment seems to play a large part in this. Almost endless assessment makes, “Children feel under endless pressure from endless testing, they do not feel that have the time to enjoy themselves” according to Sir Al Aynsley-Green, the Children’s Commissioner for England.  Even as far back as 1856 testing was viewed by Joseph Payne as “…continually pulling up the plants to see the condition of the roots, the consequence of which was that all good natural growth was stopped.” Imagine what Joseph would have said today.  I spoke to one English teacher in South Africa who conservatively estimated that at least 40% of the time in a Grade 12 IEB English class was spent doing assessment. I read with horror that in the United Kingdom the government plans to introduce formal testing for 4 year olds! Have we all gone quite mad?

The bell driven schedule that drives students through their day to day existence is exhausting. Most older teenager seem chronically short of sleep.  Jonathan Jansen talks of how young people see school as irrelevant because it is just not linked to the real world. Instead you just keep jumping through hoops. It is no wonder that young people complain of being tired and bored with school. I know of some boys who have downloaded an app that sounds exactly like our school bell. At a strategic time in a lesson they then play the sound of the bell sound safe in the knowledge that the teacher’s Pavlovian conditioning will kick in and unintentionally release them to enjoy an extra few minutes of freedom. I am told this works best if you can also manage to adjust the classroom clock on the wall.

One might be forgiven for thinking of course that after 6 hours of fairly intensive concentration and effort (at least in theory), that this means the day is done. But of course it doesn’t. It is quite likely that an hour or two of intensive sport coaching remain, possibly more if students do more than one sport. For most children, for most of the time, sport is a fun and relaxing way to ease the pressure of the academic day. For others however sport adds to the pressure. In the competitive sporting landscape that many schools find themselves in there is strong pressure to perform. This can create a quasi-professional environment that is not always conducive to a healthy educational approach. And it’s not necessarily even good for sports. Evidence to suggest that over coaching has reduced performance and the development of skills. As Carl Honore says  “…who is going to risk a Christian Ronaldo step over or a Gareth Bale dribble when you are judged for making a mistake.”

John Cartwright, a football coach in England believes that young players today are less skilfull that previous generations because they have spent more time being coached and less time kicking a ball around in the streets or the park with their mates. I always enjoy seeing some of the boys at the school where I work playing ‘Quad’ soccer. Played on uneven ground, preferably in the rain to enhance slide tackling, with trees and a pond as additional obstacles to be negotiated around, it is pure fun all away from the watchful eye of teachers and coaches. All too often this is the exception. In the USA 70% of children quit sports by the time they are 13, blaming exhaustion, burnout and the pressure cooker atmosphere created by coaches and parents says Carl Honore.

If it’s not pre-season rugby training and the like, it could just as well be play practice, music lessons, ballet classes and any number of other extra-curricular activities or clubs. It would seem we have managed to professionalise play if such a thing were possible and not an oxymoron. This crazy scheduling often means families are endlessly ferrying their children from one appointment to the next. In the United States, the demographic group that were most often guilty of running a red light were the ‘soccer mums’ as they rushed their children from one activity to another. That’s just plain moronic, oxy or otherwise.

At least at the end of all that you would think there would be time to put your feet up, enjoy the evening and relax. Not so, the usual dinner time fare is spelling, projects, reading, research, math, essays, the list goes on. Take your pick depending on the age and stage of your child. Homework is often more of a 5 course meal as opposed to a quick bite to eat and for older teenagers can run late into the night.  Although it is hard to get a clear picture as to the value or otherwise of homework, what is certain is that up until the age of 11 there are no clear benefits to doing homework. Could it be that all it really does for younger children is ruin family time and eat into the necessary mental health buffer that is downtime? Even for older children the evidence that homework helps is mixed. A survey by Harvard University looked at National Merit scholarship winners in the US to see what factors made them academically successful. The conclusion? Sitting down to a meal together as a family was the single biggest predictor of success.

Cafe Bloom

It would appear that there are numerous benefits of slowing down in an educational setting. It can be argued that physical health, mental well-being and academic performance can all be enhanced from a ‘less is more’ approach. So how do we go about this, where do we start? Well given that we are talking about going slowly I’ll leave that till my next blog. If you have time before then won’t you just complete the poll below and let us know if you think children today are too busy. In the meantime I am going to take up Mick’s suggestion and sit down with a few friends for a coffee.


Much of the research mentioned in this article comes from the book ‘Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children From The Culture Of Hyper-Parenting: Putting the Child Back into Childhood’ by Carl Honore  It is well worth the read.

If you are interested in more details on the sources for any of the statistics or research quoted in the blog please let me know in the comments section and I will provide you with them.


  1. Excellent article. The competition for jobs, places at University, scholarships, etc, means that only the top students will get opportunities. At the same time, I think parents are to blame: sometimes our own ambitions cause us to lose sight of what our children really need. It takes a huge amount of discipline as self-discipline on parents to make sure children do not over-commit and get stretched too much when everyone all you hear around you is how this one is sending his child to extra cricket lessons, and that one is doing two music instruments plus two sports a term AND has a private tutor to make sure s/he performs well and can get that scholarship (which they don’t really need, otherwise they would not be able to afford all the private coaches and tutors, of course).
    Good family values, time with your child, stimulating dinner conversation, discipline (within reason of course), and allowing your child to find his/her own place in the universe may sound old-fashioned, but I have seen far too many young people lose their way because of the pressure put on them by parents and the school system to believe in anything else

    Liked by 1 person

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