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Why stress can be good for children

24 July 2015

A well-intentioned education policy could have unwelcome results, says Trevor Barnes

AS THE school year ended last week, things seemed to be looking up for some pupils. No longer might they have to blame the dog for eating their homework. A leading figure in the education establishment seems half-way to concluding (to thunderous teenage applause) that homework should be abolished as potentially harmful and "Victorian".

Eve Jardine-Young, Principal of Cheltenham Ladies’ College, announced last month that she was considering a ban on homework, on the grounds that it could be adversely affecting pupils’ mental health. The school now plans a full-scale review of its homework policies, introducing, in the mean time, weekly meditation classes and a less rigid daily timetable that will allow students twice as long to walk between lessons.

Admirable though it is to assign as much importance to young people’s mental well-being as to their academic performance, the proposed new policy should perhaps first be tested against the much older principle of unintended consequences. Attempting, for instance, to banish anxiety, stress, and, yes, depression from human experience risks leaving young adults unprepared for the natural shocks that they will inevitably encounter during a life that must, of necessity, embrace sadness, disappointment, and loss. Far better, surely, to instruct children in how best to deal with such reverses than to try to shield them from their inevitable visitation.

Doing homework, to be sure, does not equate to dealing with the death of a grandparent. But to ban it simply because it is stressful leaves our children poorly prepared for the stress that inescapably awaits them when a parent does fall ill or a much loved grandparent does die.

Moreover, psychologists (and common sense) tell us that there is such a thing as good stress — the type that flows from an activity that is not inherently pleasurable, but has to be undertaken if people are to stretch themselves and achieve their potential. Think competitive sport, for example, or solving a difficult puzzle against the clock. Think . . . erm . . . homework — balanced and supervised by the kind of attentive staff whom Ms Jardine-Young almost certainly recruits as a matter of course.

Nor will meditation classes help much in this regard, for to add them to a timetable that is already having to accommodate everything from sex education to religious radicalisation (not to mention maths and geography) risks giving naturally rebellious pupils something more to gripe about in the extended time that they will now have to process between lessons.

This is not to impugn Ms Jardine-Young’s good intentions or her professionalism — still less, her evident humanity in the face of serious concern over our children’s mental health. But she should perhaps lighten up a little and follow the example of the actress-turned-novelist Celia Imrie. She had no qualms about straying into similar territory at the Hay Festival back in May, with her suggestion that allowing children to be bored might be no bad thing. The sensory overload constantly provided by smartphones, social media, and the internet, she said, was in danger of inoculating our sons and daughters against the realities of a life that was not all "Ha ha hee hee" and instant gratification.

No one wants to make life harder than it already is, but making it easier may not automatically make it any better.


Trevor Barnes reports for the Sunday programme and other BBC Religion and Ethics broadcasts.

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