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When I was at school there were a dozen or so girls who were unapologetic swots. They were clever, crazy hard-working, and they never joined in with anything outside academics.

Were they happy or lonely? I’m not sure, actually, but I’m certain they’d feel intense pressure if they were back at school today. It’s now commonly accepted amongst head teachers that too much focus on purely academics is not healthy for young people – with anxiety and mental issues at an all time high amongst the under 18s, the need to develop the ‘whole child’ rather than the next Einstein has never been higher.

But what makes a ‘healthy’ school for kids and what should we be looking out for? As someone who last year implemented an ambitious activities programme, I’ve picked the brains of Ben Beardmore-Gray, head teacher at leading South Oxfordshire boys’ prep school Moulsford School. Fascinating stuff and food for thought in your school search. As always let me know your thoughts!


Has the ethos of teaching changed?

scientist young boy

Academics are important, no question, but to focus purely on exams and study is a major opportunity lost. I think schools are getting wise to that now and parents are also looking beyond grades. At prep school age and beyond children should be exposed to lots of different opportunities and be encouraged to have a go without the pressure of ‘failure’ attached. There’s no question that it helps self-esteem, boosts confidence and is transferable to school life and life beyond school. You can see it come through into the class as well – if they’ve learnt resilience trying and succeeding in getting to the top of a climbing wall, they’ll know to keep trying in their lessons, so it really helps the children who struggle academically.


Do parents interfere too much in their children’s extra curricular interests?

That’s a tough one to answer! Parents may have ideas about what is a suitable skill for their children – some might not want their sons to sew or try ceramics as they are ‘softer’ activities for example. If you have a talented child it’s tempting to encourage that child strongly down that single discipline or interest. However, we had a fascinating visit from ex England rugby head coach Clive Woodward a few months back, and his views on elite sport and child development was that it’s counter-productive for kids up to 16 to 17 years old to focus exclusively on one sport or discipline to the detriment of other interests. All the varied skills kids learn are valuable and largely transferable to their chosen discipline. We’re implementing our own Awards at the moment, a kind of in-house version of the D of E focusing on categories like performance and the arts, healthy living, community service etc with deliberately no sport on offer (we have huge sports provision separately and want to encourage other interests), so it was great to have that ethos supported by Woodward.


What about kids who are happy just studying?

Ultimately it’s down to the parents and the children, but I’d say make sure you understand the ethos of a school – somewhere like Moulsford for example is a real ‘have a go’ school – over 90% of children taking up our after school Activities programme where we offer everything from magic tricks to bike maintenance, bushcraft, parkour, night-running, ceramics, cooking , stand up comedy and sailing. There’s something for everyone, and a good school will be searching that elusive activity that ignites a spark in every child beyond the classroom. My view is that it’s hard for a child to stay mentally fresh and healthy if the whole ethos is work. It’s a life skill ultimately to have some release and rejuvenate yourself.


Is the mental health crisis in children being a bit overblown?

sad teenager boy sitting on floor jacket hidden face

You just need to look at the figures on pre teen and teen mental health to know the country has a problem. Ask any headteacher and they’ll tell you that 20 years ago in secondary schools the biggest issue was drugs or alcohol – now it’s mental health. Clearly getting into the right habits in the prep school years is key and any school worth its salt will have mental health at the top of the agenda. If you’re deciding on a school for your child, I’d advise that you properly research the level of pastoral care – who has responsibility for it? Are counsellors in place and to what degree? Is there consistent tracking of the children and a support structure within the school? These are now important considerations, and responsible, forward-thinking schools will have them in place.

Moulsford School, Moulsford-on-Thames, Oxon, OX10 9HR


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