What do A-level results and Bridgerton have in common?

Like debutantes, students are reduced to commodified objects by the state.

What do A-level results and Bridgerton have in common?

Beethoven playing in the background, classical texts everywhere, group peer pressure - no, you're not in the 1810s, you're pulling an all-nighter with your "Classical" study playlist on repeat.

Despite the aesthetic Instagram posts, matching highlighter sets and… TOTE BAGS, life as a student is pretty difficult. I know what you're thinking, bloody teenagers moaning again, but I make a serious point - just bear with me. Being a student is not just about turning up to school (with your tote bag in hand), guzzling coffee and writing essays - despite what my profile may suggest - it is about having your life reduced to one mere moment.

We all await the day when that brown envelope tells us whether we can move forward with our lives or not. And with that, we can liken students to regency-era debutantes. Once young, aristocratic girls had thrown off the shackles of childhood, they were commodified in fine frocks and brought to the marriage market - regardless of how they felt about it. Students today are dressed up in grades and UCAS points ready for the higher education and job markets. Whilst being reduced to an object and receiving your A-level results are two different things, debutantes and students have one major similarity - they are both failed by politics.

Student wellbeing has come to the foreground of university policy in recent years, but our failure to take serious action has meant that stress, anxiety, imposter syndrome and depression disproportionately affect younger people - especially those in further or higher education. Despite a few psychologists, psychiatrists and professionals debunking what was believed to be madness up until the early 20th century, for much of history, mental health issues have just been dismissed. What is madness is that only recently universities and schools have realised that for students to succeed in their studies, they need the right support and the right environment that fosters that success.

Education is an inherently political issue, and so it is only right that we should expect substantial action from the top, from the government. But the turnover at the Department of Education is as volatile as Truss' premiership has been, with the department's buildings barely having enough room to hang the portraits of all the Education Secretaries gone by. Indeed, it is right that we should expect some sort of action on mental health, but our expectations are too high for a government department with a history of catastrophe and a litany of bad decision-making. As schools, sixth forms and universities were disrupted by the pandemic, an algorithm was used to replace exams and teacher-assessed grades, and the consequences were missed university offers, grades that weren't representative of the students and pressure to adapt to such rapid change. As if proud of their incompetence, the government decided to award the culprit, then Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, a knighthood.

Students protesting in London in 2020 against the enforced A-level algorithm-altered results
Students protested in 2020 against the enforced A-level algorithm-altered results, calling on education secretary Gavin Williamson to resign. Source: The Independent.

Such a disruption, due to the pandemic, has inflicted a permanent 'loss of learning' on the groups of children affected, so much so that the Department of Education is hosting sessions to address this. For A-level students, this has meant mounting pressure to perform in the exam halls to try and make up for this shortfall in learning, and ensure that they can take their 'next steps' as teachers and education workers like to call it. Anxiety as students face exam papers and university applications distorts what should be one of the most exciting times of their lives. On the cusp of adulthood and freedom, students should be able to look forward to the adventure that awaits them at university, apprenticeships or the world of work. But no, the pressure to ensure that they get the top grades means that the future is clouded. Students are so focused on handling their exams and the stress and anxiety that comes along with them that they find themselves unable to appreciate the excitement that should be. We need to take action to prevent a future where more students feel overcome by stress and worry.

After all, shouldn't education be a priority? Is it not beneficial to society as a whole to have an educated public, which, by extension, leads to a healthier economy and a flourishing democracy? I would've thought so, but inaction on student stress, health and wellbeing precludes students from tapping into their vast potential. This has led us to be fixated on the here and now, not the there and then. Our future leaders and citizens are currently in lecture halls, apprenticeships, classrooms and libraries, and we are failing to see that. Among the benefits of good, strong, healthy education, we can count tolerance to immigration, increasing civic engagement and economic growth. The effects of education are even felt at the ballot box. In the 2015 general election, turnout was 79.6% among those with higher education, versus 73.1% for this without.

Voting intention in the UK 2019 election by age. It shows the majority of conservative voters tend to be older in age, compared to labour voters being younger in age.
Voting intention in the UK 2019 election by age. Source: YouGov.

So if education is beneficial for all of us, why does the government neglect student mental health and wellbeing? It probably has something to do with the fact that, overall, the incumbent Conservative Party finds it electorally prudent to direct their campaigns and policies to the older generations. According to a poll by YouGov, for every 10 years older a voter is, their chance of voting Tory increases by around 10% and in 2019, 56% of 18-24 year-olds voted Labour, whilst 67% of people over 70 voted Conservative. This data perhaps gives us a reason as to why young people's mental health is not prioritised by those in power. Yet, this may change when they realise that solutions to mental health leads to better standards and improvements in education, which in turn leads to more political participation amongst young people. I have no doubt that the party who acts on this, will surely be rewarded with the votes.

When will we realise that education policy is not just for teachers, students, examining boards and universities, but it is for us all? In the same way that society still has a long way to go before reaching gender equality, precious little has been done to ensure education and young people are high up on the political to-do list. Education should be regarded as a public good. But that means treating student health as a priority, because, after all, the health of our students is the health of our nation's future. Don't believe me? - Talk to this guy:

~ Diogenes

Archie Rankin
Archie Rankin

A young, pen-wielding Liberal with intellectual curiosities in all things politics, with huge appetites for history, philosophy and economics. Committed to making a positive difference for young people in my role as Associate Editor & Innovation Lead, constantly seeking out new ideas and approaches to drive innovation and progress.

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