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Unions 2000 Tuesday, 18 April, 2000, 08:16 GMT 09:16 UK
'Suicide risk' in pressure on pupils
Hank Roberts
Hank Roberts says schools are becoming 'factory farms'
Gary Eason reports from the ATL conference in Belfast

Teachers have warned the government that it is "treading a route to child suicide" in imposing ever more pressures on pupils to perform better educationally.

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers, at its annual conference, in Belfast, passed a resolution strongly objecting to "factory farming" - with pupils suffering from being crammed with information and crammed into overcrowded classrooms.

Its proposer, London teacher Hank Roberts, drew a comparison with Japan, where children have committed suicide under the stress of feeling they must do well at school.

But the Education Minister, Estelle Morris, says she thinks children enjoy being tested.

During the conference debate, Mr Roberts said that in most secondary schools pupils were now asked to do "increasing mountains of homework", plus booster lessons, Saturday schools and even holiday revision classes.

"What's happened to play? What's happening to childhood?" he said.

Basketball or booster lesson

A colleague had told him that her 10-year-old son was being forced to choose between going to an after-school basketball club - which he wanted to go to - and going to a SAT tests booster class.

Mr Roberts said he believed children were already showing signs of neurosis - nervousness, worry, panic, anxiety - "not behaving like kids".

Recalling a holiday job he had once had in a battery chicken farm, he said there was a pecking order in force - with pressure from the government onto schools inspectors, from them to head teachers, to teachers, "and the poor pupils at the bottom".

"It's time to end factory farming and give our kids a bit of free range," he said.

In Japan there had been cases of children committing suicide under the relentless pressure to do well in exams.

Cramped classrooms

Last year there were 192 cases of under-16s killing themselves in Japan, a 44% rise on the previous year and the highest figure for 12 years.

Mr Roberts said he believed England was heading the same way.

"The route this government is treading is the route to child suicide ... because of the intolerable hothouse pressures put on children's learning."

The problem was often compounded by physically cramped conditions, said Pat Bennett from a primary school in Lambeth, London.

Primary classrooms had to have a reading corner, a computer corner, a maths corner - and, in her church school, a religious education corner, she said, and the literacy hour also required "carpet space" where children could sit.

She then had to squash in 32 pupils and two adults.


Another delegate, Sally Webster from Humberside, recalled asking the education secretary when he had visited the ATL's conference last year why her daughter Rebecca was in a class of 36 when there were supposed to be 30 on the register.

David Blunkett had acted swiftly. By the time her daughter went back to school after the Easter break, she was in a class of 15.

"I thought it was great - until I went to the first parents' evening," she said. "She was in a classroom smaller than my living room."

The school had made a classroom out of what had been the "quiet area" of another class.

"I was stunned," she said.

She persuaded her train driver husband to become a parent governor at their daughter's school. He was now threatening to keep Rebecca away from school when she came to do her national curriculum tests in May next year because he did not want to put her under any pressure.

'Some children worry'

But Estelle Morris, who was to address the conference, told journalists beforehand that although she understood the danger, her impression from visiting schools was that children enjoyed the structure and pace of the government's literacy and numeracy strategies.

"All children are different," she said.

"There are always children who get worried about different aspects of school ... let's not think there was ever a golden age where no 10-year-olds ever worried about anything."

Teachers and parents needed to be careful of children's needs.

"But I don't accept that the country is full of Year 6 children who are incredibly anxious about the SATs after Easter," she said.

  • Hank Roberts revealed during his speech that on Monday he had telephoned the top public school Eton, posing as a prospective parent - "naughty, I know".

    He had been told that they had a pupil-teacher ratio better than 10 to one, enough playing fields for 35 simultaneous cricket matches, two swimming pools, squash courts, athletics facilities and a golf course.

    "It's tough at the top, isn't it?" he said.

  • See also:

    20 Jan 00 | UK Education
    12 Apr 00 | UK Education
    09 Nov 99 | UK Education
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