Accusations of hot-housing young pupils and excessive tutoring seem to have become recurrent themes in the national media and in educational debates over the last few years. It is widely acknowledged that the pressure on many young children today is much higher than in previous generations, and this is particularly exacerbated in the hyper-competitive atmosphere of the London independent sector.  The demand for places at high-performing secondary schools mean that entrance exams at 11+ and Common Entrance level are becoming even more rigorous, and some schools have introduced pre-testing to further filter candidates, who are frequently as young as nine or 10 when they begin the process. This system not only places considerable stress on children, but also raises questions about how schools should manage the emotional consequences and equip pupils with coping strategies.

It is not just children who require support; many parents feel the pressure of these entrance exams just as acutely as their offspring, desperate to secure a select academic pedigree and future opportunities for university and the workplace. This parental stress can be contagious, negatively impacting on children (who are emotional sponges at such a young age) and fuelling anxiety amongst other families at the school gates. Parents often set their hearts on a specific school, resorting to extensive tutoring to secure their child a place at a highly prized secondary. This has become so normalised that what is frequently forgotten is that if children require this level of support to get through examinations, they often struggle with the heavier academic demands once they are in, as well as having to cope with the additional trials and tribulations of normal adolescence.

“Parental stress can be contagious, impacting on children, who are emotional sponges”

At secondary school, the usual stressors (friendships gone awry, GCSE and A-Level exams, large workload) are typically played out on a bigger and, thanks to the advent of social media, increasingly public stage. To thrive in this environment, pupils need not only to have mastery of the core curricular areas, but also to possess the emotional resilience to deal with stressful situations.  Preparatory schools  are so-called because their role is to prepare children for entry into secondary schools; this is not simply about ensuring pupils can showcase knowledge acquisition and application. It is also about endowing children with emotional intelligence and social skills.

True resilience at this difficult stage is not always taught within the curriculum but embedded into the fabric of a school culture which facilitates positive learned behaviour, emotional engagement from children and healthy relationships and connections.  Children should go on to future schools both feeling valued and with self-value. This is predicated on truly nurturing the whole child, structuring the way that school life operates and lessons are taught to provide a holistic education. Caring school environments are often perceived to exist within a false dichotomy, pitted against those with extensive academic credentials, as if pastoral care were discrete from the promotion of scholastic progress. Yet, as we witness a surge in pupils’ stress levels, it is even more important to ensure we build self-esteem and empower pupils with the cognitive mechanisms to face a world that is increasingly competitive, performance-driven and constantly changing, without the fear
of failure.