Time in student services transformed my approach to learners

While the staffroom debates whether this generation of learners are ‘snowflakes’, student service support is coolly preventing an avalanche of need, writes David Murray

While the staffroom debates whether this generation of learners are ‘snowflakes’, student service support is coolly preventing an avalanche of need, writes David Murray

6 Mar 2023, 5:00

There is one area of my college I always feared to tread. Not the management suite or the smoking area, but student support services. To me, it has always felt like a place of pain. I’ve heard others describe it as the place where poor behaviour finds its excuses.

A college has a single reason to exist, which is education rather than social care, but in recent years my college has been overhauled this area to become an award-winning provision, and the enormous and highly effective student support team is the foundation of that success.

While every staffroom in the land still plays host to debates about whether our youth are ‘snowflakes’ or whether they are truly suffering, the fact is that they need and rightly expect support. What we see in our young people is a social and societal problem but it is also a profoundly educational one. High stress levels are an obvious hindrance to learning, and while the Covid years knocked many off balance, the truth is that the causes of their stresses pre-date the pandemic.

There’s the age-old exam stress, of course, which an obsession with league tables has heightened to a pitch almost from day one of their schooling. And today, even the winners have the weight of student debt and impossibly priced rents to look forward to – not much of a prize. Behind this hovers a deep corrosive fear that comes from a poorly addressed climate emergency, putting everything they are working for at risk. Many no longer feel the future is a place of hope, but despair. Social media compounds this, since there is no sanctuary from these pressures. 

But there’s a more positive aspect to all this, which I’ve learned from listening to students. Many talk of the normalisation of seeking help. And they’re right. Where once people would have been ashamed to pose personal questions in public, now there are networks dedicated to the nichest of issues. Where not so long ago we looked on puzzled at America’s apparent obsession with therapy, now we employ counsellors on our college staff.

There is something serious and worrying going on

Does that make them snowflakes? I can see why Gen X teachers might find the whole thing confusing, but if shame has simply evaporated when it comes to struggles with mental health that is surely no bad thing.  

No matter how hard you search the historical record, you will find no mention of prostate cancer before 1853 when the disease was first recognised, but it existed. PTSD was only identified in the aftermath of the Vietnam war, but its effects were quite evidently described millennia ago in the Aeneid. As educators, are we willing to mirror WWI generals who thought shell-shocked soldiers should simply snap out of it and return to the front line? 

In this light, the snowflakes vs suffering debate is only really asking whether there has been an increase in need or an increase in our ability to identify need. Either way, suicide rates are falling worldwide and in the UK, so all the talk about mental health clearly helps.  

However, in an awful twist, the teen suicide rate bucks this trend. Intentional self-harm is now the third most common cause of death for UK teenagers after accidents and cancer. Like far too many teachers, I have more than once been on the edge of such awful tragedy and have seen enough self-harm to last a lifetime. There is something serious and worrying going on, which can’t be put down to the scandalous underfunding of CAMHS alone.

Whatever the reason, we teachers have a role to play. When anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked about the earliest sign of human civilisation, she spoke of a 15,000-year-old human femur which showed signs of having been broken and healed. The person had been cared for while convalescing. This, Mead said, is civilisation.  

I now see our student support services area as a place of healing, a place where poor behaviour and poor learning find their reasons. That is the kind of place where I want to be. So that is where you’ll find me, listening to the youth of today – not in the staffroom debating their problems.  

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