29 Apr 2016

Life Lessons: What We Learn Outside the Classroom

As the Department for Education's Mental Health Champion and co-founder of the Self-Esteem Team, Natasha Devon has worked with thousands of teenagers throughout the country on issues such as body image, confidence, mental wellbeing and exam stress. Drawing on her own experience, she reflects on those all-important life lessons we don't necessarily learn at school.

A good education should prepare you for life.

Most people would agree with that sentiment. What we can't seem to agree on is for what kind of life school should be preparing children and young people.

In the red corner we have those who see education predominantly as a recruitment process. They tend to think that a school's remit should simply be the procurement of a set of qualifications which will allow their pupils to proceed to the next level – be that university or employment. The rest, they would argue – the life, social skills and pastoral information – should be the responsibility of parents.

It is an incredible privilege to be able to determine what and how young people learn.

In the blue corner there are the people who realise that, while for most of us our parents are the most important and influential role models we will ever have, they can't know everything. They are also aware that, in the words of Caitlin Moran, 'not all homes are safe, Boden homes' where children are taught things that will help them survive and thrive. Furthermore, schools are the only places where children and young people are guaranteed to be – and while we cannot control what is said and done behind the closed doors of every home in the UK, the curriculum demands that certain things are taught and discussed in schools. It is an incredible privilege to be able to determine what and how young people learn.

If you had asked me when I was 17, a straight-A student, deputy head girl, playing the lead in my school's annual Shakespeare production and a champion Oxford Union debater, I would probably have allied myself firmly with the red corner. Everything about my academic performance to date marked me out as someone destined for success. My numerous extra-curricular activities meant I was able to declare myself a 'well-rounded individual' on my UCAS form.

Being able to quote more than half of the Complete Works of Shakespeare isn't much use when you find yourself away from home for the first time.

Being able to quote more than half of the Complete Works of Shakespeare isn't much use when you find yourself away from home for the first time, and the combination of isolation, loneliness and fear can trigger a cycle of acute anxiety. Knowing how to solve an algebra equation isn't going to quell the feeling that everyone else is dealing with life so much better than you are, that you are a freak and a failure who wasn't quite designed for this world. The fact that you know the capital of Morocco isn't what a therapist wants to hear as you sit there, quivering with humiliation trying to explain why a confident, intelligent girl like you has spent the best part of a decade with her head in a toilet, trying to purge away the shame. Nothing I learned in school helped me to understand where all my potential went. It was only eight years later, when I found myself unemployed, impoverished, still living with my parents and utterly miserable, that I realised academic success is not a guarantee of life success. I was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a well-rounded individual at that point, and so much of what had led me there had been avoidable, if only I had been better prepared.

After I recovered from my eating disorder and learned how to deal with the anxiety disorder that had been its genesis and the depression its unwelcome legacy, I began to think about what I wished I'd known – what might have stopped me from meandering down a hugely destructive path. And then I thought, 'Hang on. The world has changed. The experience of being a teenager and going to school has changed. Why don't I ask some of today's young people what THEY would like to know?'

So, reader, I did. I interviewed more than 400 teenagers of all genders and backgrounds who turned out to be much more self-aware and able to articulate their needs with far greater clarity than I would have been able to at that age. Body image, exam stress, self-harm and 'banter' emerged as the biggest obstacles to young people's happiness. I started with body image, figuring I had some experience in that area.

Body image, exam stress, self-harm and 'banter' emerged as the biggest obstacles to young people's happiness

After consulting with experts, in 2008 I founded the Body Gossip Education Programme, workshops and lectures which helped young people navigate the realities of a culture which, via the internet (amongst other things), finds constant new and innovative ways to tell them they aren't good enough. In 2010 I developed a lesson on understanding our habits, with a view to tackling the thorny and potentially highly triggering issue of self-harm.

In 2012, along with Grace Barrett and Nadia Mendoza, I formed the Self-Esteem Team. Today we offer lessons on mental wellbeing and exam stress as well as teacher training and sessions for parents. To date, the Body Gossip Education Programme and Self-Esteem Team lessons have been delivered to more than 60,000 teenagers in 250 schools throughout the UK. In 2014 we were given a government-affiliated award recognising our contribution to education. In 2015 I was made the Department for Education's Mental Health Champion and invited to share the knowledge I have gained from visiting an average of three schools per week all over the country and listening to the concerns and challenges faced by young people and those who teach them.

One in four people will experience a mental illness during their lifetime. It was, I have realised, my own prejudice about people with three 'A' grade A-levels not being vulnerable to mental health problems, which stopped me acknowledging when it was happening to me. All of us have a brain and therefore mental health, and we can all learn techniques to nurture it, in just the same way we would look after our physical health. Part of the aim of the Self-Esteem Team is to engage the three in four who, statistically, won't become mentally ill in a conversation that is relevant to 100% of people.

We hope that our work prevents mental health issues when they are preventable and encourages young people to get the help they need when they're not. Because the truth is, while academic education is incredibly important, and while the knowledge I have of Shakespeare and algebra and the capital of Morocco (it's Rabat, by the way, not Marrakech like many people think) actually comes in useful now and again, it is meaningless unless it happens within the context of a healthy mind.


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