Natasha Devon MBE, the Tory government’s Mental Health Champion, has been removed after criticism of the Department for Education’s testing policy — but the government says that the timing is coincidental.
Devon, a popular figure who founded Body Gossip and is a member of the Self-Esteem Team, has served as the government’s advocate for mental health issues since last August. She has campaigned for additional attention and support to combat issues such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders and body image.
But just last week, Devon cited mandated school testing as a major source of stress on Britain’s children. In an editorial for The Telegraph, she commented on the effect of testing on children’s mental health:
“There are those that would argue that this kind of fiercely competitive environment prepares children for the harsh realities of life, but these same people forget that, in developmental stages, making children feel judged, inadequate and anxious can impair their cognitive development.”
School testing has been a source of contention lately, with Education Secretary Nicky Morgan taking fierce criticism over the weekend in part because of the Department’s testing policies. Schools Minister Nick Gibb was also pressured on the difficulty of the exams and had to defend charges that they were developmentally inappropriate for Britain’s youngest.
Parents of six- and seven-year old Year 2 students banded together for the “Let Our Kids Be Kids” campaign this week, with tens of thousands supporting a petition to suspend testing and an unknown number — potentially thousands — keeping their children away from Tuesday’s testing.
But the Department for Education said that Devon’s criticism of testing had nothing to do with her dismissal, claiming instead that her position was made redundant. An independent NHS report suggested in February that a cross-departmental Mental Health Champion be named, which resulted in Devon’s position being eliminated altogether.
At this weekend’s Headmasters and Headmistresses conference, Devon reinforced the link she sees between academic performance and mental health:
“Time and time again over recent years, young people and the people who teach them have spoken out about how a rigorous culture of testing and academic pressure is detrimental to their mental health.
“At one end of the scale, we have four year olds being tested, at the other end of the scale [young people] leaving school facing the prospect of leaving university with record amounts of debt.”
Citing anxiety as the fastest-growing mental health affliction among UK youth, Devon said, “These things are not a coincidence.”
Devon has worked to draw attention to broad social pressures on children. She said recently that schools must be mindful of the effects of bullying, which is leading to the overmedication of children who are treated for the depression such stress can cause. In September 2015, she released a manifesto for how schools and teachers could improve the mental health of the nation’s children, and since then has pushed schools and the Department for Education to focus on the “root causes” of mental health issues rather than treating its symptoms.
Despite her abrupt dismissal, Devon seems to be undeterred. A statement posted on the Self-Esteem Team’s Facebook page said, “Throughout life you have to roll with the punches, even after school and uni, facing challenges, having to adapt, this is just one of those situations. Sometimes you get rejected, but you just carry on fighting the good fight. And all of [the Self-Esteem team] will be back in schools teaching tomorrow.”
[Image: Cosmopolitan Magazine]