Everyday Pressures at School

Fellow Post: Flora Arbuthnott's notes on her placement in school.

This article was originally written on Potatoes of Change by 2013 Graduate Fellow Flora Arbuthnott.

Ken Robinson’s ‘Schools Kill Creativity’ video is the most-watched TED talk of all time.

Tests. Grades. Uniforms. Rules. Fences. Locks. Gates. Ticks. Crosses. Bells.  Results. I must admit, I don’t like spending time at school.

I remember the first time that I walked through the school gates one month ago. That sick feeling in my throat, realising that this world of concrete and fencing will be where I am to spend the majority of the next four months. Three weeks in, I am feeling stifled and restricted by the environment and the curriculum, pressured to get things right first time, to arrive to class on time, prepare for lessons and deliver what is expected by my superiors.

And I am just a mentor, I won’t be the one taking the exams at the end of the year.

The six year 10 students that I am mentoring will be taking their GCSE’s in 14 months, and the pressure is already on.

“I feel sick”

“I just start sweating”

I was sat in class next to Zahir. The teacher was reading out the results of a mock maths paper.

This morning, I watched this lecture by Sir Ken Robinson ‘Changing Education’. This helped me to realise that I’m not alone in feeling so uncomfortable at school.

The public education system was a brilliant revolutionary idea that has made education accessible and compulsory to all. However, as Robinson stated so compellingly;

“The current system of education was designed, conceived and structured for a different age… in the intellectual culture of the enlightenment and in the economic structures of the industrial revolution.”

The reason why I am at Globe Academy is to investigate and understand issues relating to educational disadvantage from the student’s shoes (or bare feet… one student had her trainers confiscated yesterday, arriving to my lesson late and bare footed). I’m looking at students who the capacity to be high achieving are not reaching their full potential within the school system.

I am realising that this feeling of discomfort that I have when I walk through the school gates every morning is a symptom of a broader challenge facing the education system.

Here are just two big themes that I would like to explore:

1.Fear of being wrong

The school system seems to be results-driven as opposed to process-led. This leads to many students feeling afraid of being wrong. Students hold back from saying things or asking questions in class in case what they say is not right. Three of my six year 10 students, Tessa, Tina and Shoma have already expressed anxiety around being wrong in class. Tessa told me that she feels stressed if she does not get an answer right or if she does not understand things.

I asked her,

“What if you were in an environment where you felt that it was ok to be wrong?”

and she said,

“I’d be speaking out loud all the time.”

Tina said that she has questions in class but does not ask.

While Shoma explained that she didn’t ask questions because she is embarrassed that she does not understand.

2.Learning to live…not just to achieve.

What if school was about learning to live well, not just work well. I have observed rigorous academic testing and pressures to achieve academically. However out of the classroom, there is little encouragement to extend this ‘achievement’ to lifestyle decisions.


Only one of my six students eats breakfast. Tina, the most extreme  case is diabetic and she does not eat breakfast. Some students will not eat until dinner some days.

“I’m hungry, has anyone got any food?”

Is not an unexpected exclamation during a Monday morning maths class. Usually a generous friend will pass a packet of tropical skittles under the desk to be received by grateful hands.


The students are encouraged to drink bottled water in the canteen. If they wanted to drink tap water during lunch, they would have to bring in their own cup or bottle and fill it up at the water fountain that is outside the cafeteria. In the staff room there is a water cooler, some students break the ‘no students in the staff room’ rule in search of a drink of water. The staff hide the plastic cups in a cupboard because otherwise they have found that the students use them all up. The students are being encouraged to make unethical lifestyle decisions.


Similarly, no waste food in the school is composted. It is all thrown in to a bin along with plastic bottles, tetra packs and sweet wrappers.

There is a great opportunity to teach the students about living in an ethical and responsible way that is yet to be harnessed.

Note: Key details have been altered to protect the privacy of students and teachers.