Natasha Devon MBE, former Government mental health champion and schools adviser speaking at our ‘Good Mental Health in Schools – What Works?’ conference on 28th April 2016.
The Government’s appointed mental health champion, Natasha Devon, who has been highly critical of how extensive academic testing of young people impacts negatively on their wellbeing, creating anxiety and stress, has had her role axed by the Department for Education (DfE).
A DfE spokesperson said that Ms Devon’s role, which was to raise awareness and reduce the stigma around young people’s mental health problems, had been axed to avoid “confusion.” The department has denied that the decision to unappoint Natasha as the mental health tsar for schools last August, was a political move designed to silence criticism of government policies. However, Natasha has been told that she can no longer make any comments publicly about her role.
Ms Devon has also criticised former education secretary Michael Gove – she said that he was “despised and divisive” and “refused” to accept a link between mental health, academic competition and performance.
The DfE has maintained that the decision was not based on Devon’s “frank” nature, (a strange way of describing integrity) but because “a cross-governmental champion was recognised as being the preferred option.”
Natasha has highlighted the negative impact of the academic pressures facing young people, and said she knew her opinions would not be popular “in some circles”, but felt she had to be brave and speak out, as an advocate for young people.
Last week, in her last public appearance, Ms Devon addressed a headteachers conference saying: “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’ve got four-year-olds being tested, at the other end of the scale we’ve got teenagers leaving school and facing the prospect of leaving university with record amounts of debt. Anxiety is the fastest growing illness in under-21s. These things are not a coincidence,” she warned.
Devon said: “We have started to misuse words like ‘character, resilience and grit’ as though struggling with a mental illness is a defect in the individual, rather than a response to a culture which makes it difficult to enjoy good mental health.”
The former mental health champion for schools in England took up the post last August. Ms Devon, who was awarded an MBE in 2015 for her work helping young people conquer mental health and body image issues, said she had not been paid for the role as it was important she remained independent and objective.
She warns that the new, paid mental-health champion could “be paid effectively to toe the party line” though she hoped the new champion would be a “positive force for good,” but she was “sceptical”.
She said: “When I first took the role, I said to the department what I want to do is… bring the concerns of young people and the people who teach them to government level.
So it’s not actually me that’s being silenced, it’s young people and teachers.
I think the government knows that young people don’t vote, or if they do they are very unlikely to vote Tory, and they have historically ignored their needs and the price they have paid is now we have seen a crisis in their mental health.”
Natasha further commented: “I can confirm that I am no longer authorised to comment as the Government’s mental health champion for schools. The DfE have extended an opportunity for me to continue working on the peer-to-peer project they were seeking my advice on.”
Sarah Brennan, the chief executive of YoungMinds, said: “We are very surprised and sad that Natasha’s role as mental health champion has ended. She’s done a superb job of drawing attention to the crucial importance of mental health and wellbeing in schools.”
More than 40,000 people have signed a petition protesting against primary school tests aimed at seven-year-olds as part of more rigorous assessment processes. Many critics have claimed that children are being tested too early and their education is limited by being focused towards examinations rather than broader learning, resulting in “exam factories.”
Luciana Berger, mental health shadow minister, said Devon had spoken out “openly and honestly about the challenges facing children’s mental health under this Tory government.”
She added: “If she has been silenced then this raises serious questions over the government’s commitment to listening to the evidence and acting in the best interests of young people’s mental health and wellbeing.
Ministers must explain themselves as a matter of urgency. Nicky Morgan [the education secretary] claims to be in ‘listening mode’ but it would appear that this does not extend to those that do not agree with her.”
News of Devon’s departure came the day after hundreds of parents chose to keep their children at home on Tuesday in a day of protest against tougher primary school tests, which they say are causing stress and anxiety in schools. This was part of the national “Let Our Kids be Kids” campaign, which is a response to concerns raised about the tough new exams introduced by the government. Campaigners protesting against Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) in primary schools say that children are “over-tested, over-worked and in a school system that places more importance of test results and league tables than children’s happiness and joy of learning.”
This is education that is geared towards constant assessment, competition, homogeneity, social stratification and labeling, rather than dialogue, cooperation, engagement, diversity and inspiration. Young people are being acted upon by the state, and treated as passive agents, rather than as active participants in the learning process.
Devon’s criticism went beyond mental health in the classroom. In an article for the Times Educational Supplement she accused the government of engineering “a social climate where it’s really difficult for any young person to enjoy optimal mental health”. She said: “Young people’s mental health is getting worse, but the government doesn’t want to address the social inequality that causes it.
It isn’t simply that we are hearing about mental ill-health more these days: our mental health is, beyond empirical doubt, getting worse. ”
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