Leading psychologist warns of record level of anxiety disorders at top independent schools

Former prime minister Gordon Brown with psychologist Professor Tanya Byron. Picture: PA Archive/Fion

Former prime minister Gordon Brown with psychologist Professor Tanya Byron. Picture: PA Archive/Fiona Hanson. - Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Images

A growing demand for exam success at top independent schools and pushy parents has driven the number of pupils treated for anxiety disorders to an all-time high, a leading psychologist has warned.

Prof Tanya Byron says she is currently treating more children suffering from conditions such as anorexia, depression and self-harm than at any other time in her 20-year career.

The psychologist, who was commissioned in 2007 by then Prime Minister Gordon Brown to conduct a report on the impact of the digital world on children, says she is seeing students from a number of top London independent schools, including students from Camden and surrounding boroughs, who are so scared of failure they have developed “school phobia”.

She said: “I have a clinic in London where I see children who go to some of the best schools in the country and are shattered by a fear of failure which is driven by a desire for success and achievement [from parents and schools].

“It is the endless sitting of exams which is soul-destroying.


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“I’m thinking about a lot of young women I see from private all-girls’ schools who are presenting with a number of anxiety disorders, such as anorexia, depression and self-harm.

“I see children who become school-phobics, the fear of failure becomes so intense they cannot cope with even going to school.”

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Prof Byron said she was incredibly concerned about the direction education policy has taken.

“The focus is very much on IQ and targets and testing,” she explained. “There’s no room for failure. It’s so results-driven.”

The mother-of-two, who lives in Barnet with her husband and teenage children, is set to join a panel of expert speakers at independent King Alfred School, in North End Road, Golders Green, as part of a special education conference next month.

Reacting to Prof Byron’s comments, headteacher Dawn Moore said students’ emotional wellbeing was as important as academic achievement at King Alfred School.

“Emotional and social development must go hand in hand with success in every aspect of our students’ lives,” she said.

“At King Alfred School we achieve excellent results in a low pressure, informal environment where academic rigour is combined with a real sense of partnership between individual children and their teachers.”

Mark Webster, principal at St Margaret’s School, an all-girl independent, in Kidderpore Gardens, Hampstead, said most independent schools try hard to provide strong pastoral support for teenagers.

“Surely, few if any parents, private school or otherwise, would wittingly gamble exam success for their child’s wellbeing,” he said.

“But the source of anxiety is not hard to identify. Just as it is understandable that some adults perceive that their ‘success’ in life is most readily measured by their income, so in a similar vein perhaps it is not surprising if some children feel that the most ready measure of their ‘worth’ is what school they can get into and their exam results.

“I don’t think there is a straightforward solution, but a good start might be for all of us in the north London community to emphasise to our children John Gardner’s quote that ‘The world loves talent, but pays off on character’. Do your best because it is good to do your best, not because you are worried about being a disappointment.”

The What Motivates Children conference, including a talk from Prof Byron, will take place at King Alfred School on October 5.

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