The Independent Education Review is an unprecedented opportunity to bring about transformative change to our education system to enable Northern Ireland to thrive and prosper.
This will require a strong focus on mental wellbeing and emotional intelligence, and rethinking how we define success.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that education “shall be directed towards the development of the personality, talents and mental and physical capacities of the child to their full potential”. Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, school league tables focus resolutely on academic qualifications as a result of It is true that ‘what gets measured gets managed’, and one has to wonder whether these qualifications remain as relevant in a world where information and misinformation can be obtained at the touch of a button.
Surely now more than ever it is time to develop an educational system that gives children the self-awareness and emotional intelligence they need to thrive in the modern world, and fosters critical thinking so they can formulate and evaluate evidence-based arguments.
A recent study found that rates of mental health problems among young people here are 25 pee per cent higher than neighboring areas, with one in eight having a mental health problem. One in eight young people has thought about or attempted suicide and this figure is even higher among our university students. Mental health issues arise when we are overwhelmed and unable to cope with the pressure we encounter. Children are unable to concentrate and learn when they are in a state of chronic anxiety.
Improving education standards requires focusing on mental well-being; and such an emphasis will invariably lead to better academic results. Our current education system contributes to the difficulties faced by young people, but it can also be part of the solution.
Transgenerational trauma, poverty, and childhood adversity all influence risk here. The gap between rich and poor, “winners” and “losers” and divisions within society at large have resulted in a scarcity mentality that fosters unhealthy competitiveness and anxiety about never being good enough . In a world of toxic online content and a system that emphasizes a narrow range of academic qualifications as an indicator of success, many of our young people struggle with anxiety and feelings of inadequacy. Associated with overwhelming pressure and left unchecked, they can be trapped in harmful cycles of suicidal behavior and disordered eating as a means of coping. Understanding how our minds and brains work and learning how to manage our feelings and behaviors not only supports mental well-being, it’s the foundation on which we set and achieve goals, including educational and career goals. . These are the attributes and skills that we need to assess and measure.
As more young people grapple with their mental health, the loudest calls are for more mental health services, educational resources and resilience training. However, it is important to note that there are many areas in the curriculum where mental health is addressed. The CCEA Wellness Center provides resources to support the teaching of wellness and mental health in the curriculum, and Learning for Life and Work also addresses these topics.
The education review should ensure that the quality of provision is assessed and that league tables describing performance against these aspects of the program are available. The Ministry of Education’s Framework for the Emotional Health and Wellbeing of Children and Young People in Education outlines a whole school approach, promoting wellbeing through the development of a culture of caring and support. It also includes early support in schools and interventions for people with mental health issues. All schools now need to be supported and resourced to fully implement it, and teachers need to be equipped with the skills to identify children at risk.
Programs can help young people cope with pressure, and services will help mend the pieces. However, they can only have a limited impact in the absence of a more equal society where every child has a fair chance and an education system that truly prioritizes the development of “talents and mental and physical abilities”. children to their full potential. The goal of the education review should be the creation of a system where mental well-being is at the heart of the school, its mission and its culture, and where self-awareness, thinking criticism and personal growth are valued.
This requires not only the implementation of the framework, but also the measurement and independent inspection of key results. A culture shift is needed to advance a trauma-informed approach to education delivery. Strong leadership is fundamental to achieving these goals, and it will take courage and a commitment to a new definition of excellence across the system.
:: Professor Siobhán O’Neill is the Mental Health Champion of the North.