Today, as a London parent with many friends pushing their daughters through highly competitive, vastly expensive schools, I wonder if we were not the generation spawning a breed of needy, stressed obsessives whose privileged education may be a millstone rather than a spur to fulfilment.
Anorexia and its ugly cousin bulimia have moved from being marginal mental disorders whispered about to a topic of conversation for families envied for their prosperity and comfort. Private schools, including some of the best-known in the capital, find themselves dealing with the adverse publicity and arguments about how much the very pursuit of excellence that made them desirable is threatening the balance and wellbeing of their charges.
If this was whispered about as the price that was paid occasionally for overall success, the mood has changed. Heads complain that they feel “under siege”. Michael Gove’s push to create state schools as good as private ones looks like an honourable and overdue mission. But it came at a time, says one day-school deputy head, when fretfulness about high-pressure private-school environments is sapping confidence in the model.
Society bible Tatler, no less, has published its first state school guide, recommending we join the around-the-block queue at Marylebone C of E. The Times is giving teenage anxiety and eating disorders the full campaigning treatment and the model of all-girls’ schools in the private sector overall looks under threat, with well-known boarding schools relying on parents from Asia and the Middle East seeking single-sex education to balance the books.
The days when tags like “Anorexia High” for a sought-after London girls’ school were dismissed jokily are truly over. Not even the most upbeat heads now argue that the increased incidence of eating and other stress-related conditions among their high-achievers is insignificant. Of my friendship group, I can count four presently anorexic or bulimic children. Some, but not all, are privately educated, though most come from families with high expectations of achievement and parents who are themselves successful.
One star pupil who developed the illness looked like a premature ghost at the height or her sickness, her painfully thin arms covered in downy fur. She has been in treatment long enough to acknowledge the danger, but only after her parents and older sister had been driven to despair by her denials. “Rationally, I know they’re right,” she says, “but when I look in the mirror it doesn’t feel like it to me.”
Pressure: eating disorders are affecting boys as well as girls
Psychologists confirm that teenage girls are their fastest-growing patient constituency. The scale and frequency of such problems among prosperous, well-motivated teenagers is shocking — and most cite a quest for perfection, academic, sporting or social, among the factors that caused unhappiness beyond the usual emotional rollercoaster of adolescence.
When I find a usually robust friend fretting about her healthy-looking, clever daughter’s eating habits at one of the modern Jean Brodie day schools of high repute, I wonder if the anxiety is spreading too far. She then tells me that all the girls between 14 and 16 in her daughter’s peer group shave off their pubic hair as soon as it grows, so resistant are they to the prospect of a normal womanly body. So much for the march of Girl Power.
Because independent schools have to respond fast to factors that could affect their recruiting power and status, the panic-button has now been pressed by some of their members about a cult of perfection which can all too easily morph into something harmful. The headteacher of a leading independent school has warned of the “disruptive” obsession with physical perfection that boys, as well as girls, develop in pressured academic environments. Andrew Halls of King’s College School in Wimbledon says: “Boys now are very conscious of their physical form. There is a worrying compulsion to work out in gyms.”
You might say this is a good problem to have: better a sporting fanatic than a couch potato. But the worrying word is “compulsion”. So when Halls suggests resilience training, of the type undergone by troops before battle, or Wellington College’s Anthony Seldon prioritises the teaching of wellbeing alongside the academic curriculum, I am not one to sneer.
Gradually, a recognition that the quest for success needs balance and forethought is becoming mainstream — even in institutions that would once have counselled bracing showers and going for a long walk. Next month, headteachers from almost 200 of the country’s leading independent schools will attend a gathering focusing on the need to teach pupils how to cope with the pressures of perceived failure. In most cases, the “failure” is nothing of the sort, or can be remedied. But listening on holiday to a group of girls in the swimming pool rehearsing for the umpteenth time how worried they were to only have a clutch of A* GCSEs when one of their peers had the full slam-dunk 12, does make the parental heart sink.
Our awareness of how precarious Britain’s overall education achievement looks in global terms is sharper than it was — and that is a good thing. But you do not have to be a National Union of Teachers radical to see that fretting about marginal distinctions in exams taken at 16 may not be wise or productive. We have, at the top of the income and aspiration range, a lot of teenagers whose aspiration to excellence is not about fulfilment or enjoyment of learning but about grades for their own sake. “Living in the 21st century for a bright, aspirational middle-class child is actually harder than it looks,” says Halls. “Often they feel like hopelessly unsuccessful stars of their own biopic.” He has a point.
If there is any good to come of this, it is that more parents are talking openly about the risks as well as the rewards of elite education. But schools, especially those with big reputations to protect, are still dragging their feet to some extent.
Clarissa Farr, high mistress of St Paul’s, the cream of London girls’ schools, has written to The Times saying that a spike in anxiety illnesses among female pupils is not only caused by exam results pressure. She blames the media (who doesn’t?) for girls with a body fixation and calls for newspapers and magazines to put their own houses in order.
I’m afraid this won’t do. One purpose of education, expensively paid-for or otherwise, is to arm young people against the foolishness and dangers of the society around them. So while I and many others have railed against Size Zero trends on the catwalk and tried to prod complacent editors on the glossy magazines towards doing their bit for a healthier presentation of the female form, Farr is savvy enough to know that commercial pressures, the influence of pornography on pop culture and many other reprehensible things are not going to change in any foreseeable free world. And a fiercely competitive global economy — with London as one of its glittering hubs — is going to draw bright, driven people who want their children to match and exceed their own achievements.
The best schooling will always be part of that, but it needs to think more clearly about how to dispel avoidable misery and unproductive stress. Whatever we want for our boys and girls, it surely isn’t that.