It’s Not Ok That We Are Making Our Young People Not Ok!

It’s Not Ok That We Are Making Our Young People Not Ok!

As someone who works with and researches alongside children and young people, I am always interested in the issues which concern them most. Being a teenager in 2018 is not easy and it can be difficult for others to understand exactly what it’s like, as I have written about elsewhere. One thing is for sure, as a society we do seem to be accepting that the risk of mental ill-health amongst young people is continuing to grow.

What doesn’t seem to be as widely accepted is the cause of youth mental ill-health. Of course, there isn’t just one cause, one reason, one excuse. However, when we become aware of anything which is directly resulting in the negative mental health of our young people, we have a responsibility as academics, parents and fellow human beings to highlight it.

Having worked with young people for a long time, I have been struck by the rising pressures put upon young people, particularly by their schools.

Yes, schools are where young people spend a lot of their time. Yes, young people probably see some of their teachers for much longer than they see their parents. Yes, teachers, technicians and other support staff play a vital role in the lives of our young people – there are some very caring, nurturing and genuinely dedicated groups of individuals out there. However, as someone who specialises in the rights of children and young people, particularly adolescents, there is a distinct lack of framework within education, and elsewhere, for recognising that as young people grow they should be given more autonomy to make decisions about their lives. Instead, some Scottish schools are restricting autonomy and this is adversely impacting upon the mental health of our young people.

There are many different examples of this restriction of autonomy but I am going to mention just two: school service and ‘you must respect your teacher …’ – both in relation to final year school students (16 and 17 year olds).

School Service

Although many schools have had school service as an option for a while, this year’s final year students are feeling the pressure more than any previous year. Students who would have had ‘free periods’ AKA ‘study periods’ are being told they now need to choose an area of the school to help out in to ‘give something back’.

For some students that means working in the school library, reading to younger students, helping teachers in classes with admin or other tasks. Crucially, some students have been told that their role is needed because of cuts to support staff, something that UNISON Scotland is currently campaigning about.

While helping others is a wonderful thing that does provide additional, practical experience to put on that personal statement – is it really worth it when it risks the mental health of our young people?

Having upset and angry young people because they have far fewer study periods at school, are having to hold down a job as well as trying to maintain a decent level of grades as they manoeuvre their way through adolescence while also applying for apprenticeships, college, jobs and/or university highlights the lack understanding of what it means to be a final year school student in 2018.

When these young people are contacting me upset and feeling unable to cope, feeling distanced from their peers, their studies and generally knackered, we need to start questioning the reasoning behind restricting what young people use their ‘free periods’ for. Surely they should be permitted to choose what to do in those free periods, instead of being made to go and do something for the school for 4-6 periods a week, especially if it is the difference between positive and negative mental health?!

‘You must respect your teacher …’

Some schools really do emphasise the ‘us’ and ‘them’ environment when they have assemblies at the start of term to tell final year students that they must respect their teachers. The eye rolling of teens who retort ‘why don’t they have to show us any respect?’ really does underpin the issue many have with this request.

If you speak to teachers, some will say that young people have no respect any more. If you speak to the final year students – those about to enter places of full-time employment, further education and training – they say that they’ve never been shown any respect by teachers. This isn’t a new debate nor is it confined to schools, but it is an issue that needs to be addressed if we are to get to the bottom of the mental health epidemic – positive relationships with teachers is an important issue: from the start of education, until the end of education. Schools should leave a lasting positive impression in the lives of their young people, and at present – in Scotland – this is being restricted due to the failure to treat young people as equals. We all want respect – we are only human. If we want well rounded, integrated members of the community and not isolated young people who feel detached from society we need to start listening – now!

What stage do we need to get to for heads of education to start listening? Young people spend most of their time in school, it is a fact of life and respecting the autonomy of young people is vital if we are to ensure this time is as productive as it can be.

While many are happy to moan about the negative stereotypes of our young people and say that it is just what ‘kids are like these days’, thankfully some of us think a bit differently … it is time for discussion, debate and dialogue where schools, young people and education chiefs admit that the current school ethos is not having the positive lasting effect it should be.

As Maya Angelou said: ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel’. WE need to think about how we are making our young people feel because at the minute we are making our young people unwell, and that is not ok!

Education – it is about each individual journey

Education – it is about each individual journey

After a week of exam results across Scotland and England for lots of students, it has been an emotional week for many.

From a tutoring perspective, I always find exam results day really stressful as I wait to hear how all my students have done in each of their subjects. Of course, there are always those who do not quite manage to achieve what they had hoped as well as those who ace all of their exams. To help maintain a level of empathy with my students, I decided to sit 3 Higher subjects in 2013/14. Then, in the aftermath of the disastrous SQA Higher Maths Exam 2015, I offered to sit the exam alongside some of my students in 2015/16. So, this time last year I too had just received results. However, I have found this years result the most difficult yet.

It isn’t because I have substantially more students than before and it isn’t as though I’m not used to it after all these years. However, as I progress through my PhD thesis and undertake research projects in the different disciplines I’m involved in, I’ve realised how hard it is for our young people to feel like they are ‘not on the right path’.

The recent #nowrongpath campaign encapsulated the main underpinning of my thoughts. You may not get to where you want to be straight from school, however you will get there – if you are willing to put the hard work and determination in.

Tonight, I’ve heard that one of my tutoring students has been accepted onto their chosen course at university. I’m proud of all that my students achieve based upon their respective aims. This seems particularly special as it is a student who I ‘ve tutored for a very long time. Written off by teachers during the early stage of secondary school on the basis of disruptive behaviour, the background of which was something no young person should have to suffer. However, few took the opportunity to find out what the circumstances were before condemning the student to the ‘unteachable’ pile.

Let’s be honest, this pile should never exist. In Scotland we have the GIRFEC model which means we should Get It Right For Every Child. However, I can’t help but feel that often a spirit of negativity and an inability to see the best in each individual can really affect a young person’s future. This shouldn’t happen and we must do more to prevent young people becoming encapsulated in a downward spiral of inability merely because they go through a difficult time.

Working hard over a long time, having people who believed that the end goal was possible and supporting learning through positivity and determination has helped another student achieve what they have always wanted. Without that support of family, friends and others – this young person would not be where they are today. It is so important that we have an open dialogue with our young people and ensure that they know they have options in life, and different ways of achieving them – if plan A doesn’t work, then there is always plan B, C, D…

I’m a firm believer in it only taking one person to believe in you for you to be able to achieve what you are willing to work hard for.

Today I feel really proud that this wonderful student had the support to make sure their  academic potential was reached as well as becoming the amazing person they now are.

Whether you get straight A’s or go through several different routes prior to reaching your chosen career path – you will get there and there are people to help you – just ask! You are never too old to learn!

Hard work and determination really does pay off – I promise!

SQA Exam Results: Time to be Positive! How to View Your Results and What to do Next!

SQA Exam Results: Time to be Positive! How to View Your Results and What to do Next!

Tuesday 8th August 2017 – a date that will pass lots of people without too much thought. However, for thousands of students, that date has been etched onto their memories since before they sat their exams in May. It’s SQA exam results day!!

The stress.  The time spent studying, day after day. The nagging parents (and tutor!). All for you to sit exams which you are brought up to believe are the most important thing you will do in your life.

While it is true that exams are important, they aren’t the difference between success and failure for the rest of your life. You decide whether your life is going to be a success, whether you sail through your exams with straight A’s or get a set of results which disappoints you. Only you know how much you understood, how much work you put in and how much you wanted to succeed in each subject. Therefore, it is only you that can reflect upon your work, effort and determination when you receive your exam results.

Little is said about reflecting upon your results. Reflection is something most of your parents will need to do on a regular basis at appraisals in the work place. As we grow up, we reflect upon everything – that is how we learn. This is how you should view your exam results – a learning curve from which you can use lessons to shape your future.


What to do when you get your results

Ok – it’s Tuesday 8th August and your results come through. Remember, this is an important day for you but your families also want to experience this day with you. If your results are straight A’s (which is much rarer than people realise), you may wish to spend some time telling friends and family. You should be pleased of your achievements and should celebrate them.

If your results are a mixed bag of the grades you wanted with some below your expectations, please do not be disheartened. Focus on the positives and remember that with some time to think about what you’d like to achieve, all is not lost. Celebrate your successes.

If the ‘worst’ happens and your results are what you constitute a ‘disaster’ then DO NOT PANIC. I’ve known many people over the years; friends, old students and even academics who have not managed to get the grades they required at school and have taken a few more years (in some cases 10-15 years) to get to where they want to be. Yes, it may be seen as easier to get your exams while at school, but I am a firm believer that if you want something enough – you will achieve it, regardless of your age!

My higher results caused me devastation back in 2004. As my family will attest to, the fact I only got one A grade was awful to me – I’d failed. However, I was the first person in my family to achieve highers. While they weren’t top grades by any means, I got myself into university, I got my first class law degree, started my own business and I’m publishing while working towards my PhD. I’m 30 in a few months, and I may not be in my ‘final’ job but I’ve learnt so much along the way. I’ve become more determined, more able to appreciate small successes along the way and thicker skinned. Ultimately, working with teenagers like yourself has helped me decide that I want to specialise in the rights of adolescents and children. We’ve all heard the saying, ‘what’s for you won’t go passed you’. So, regardless of your results, you’ll get there.

If your results mean that your university options are thrown into disarray, please do not panic – there are always options. You can speak to the university directly, or use UCAS Clearing. The road to success is never smooth for anyone, so this is merely a bump in the road.

Think of your friends

While celebrating all successes, please bear in mind that some of your friends may not feel particularly social over the exam results week. By all means, let them know you are there to chat if they want to. However, exam results are a very personal thing – if everyone got straight A’s the world would be a boring place! We all have our own strengths and weaknesses, so be supportive and not competitive with each other.

Friends are there to support each other so enjoy the rest of your school holidays as much as you can!

Parents and Family Support

Remember that stress you went through over exam time? Well, most of your parents went through very similar feelings. They instinctively want you to do really well in your exams so you have as many options in life as possible. However, they have no control over your results which is frustrating for them – and for you! Try not to get annoyed with your parents repeatedly asking if you are ok, or how your friends got on – just try to be honest with them.

Going forward – need a chat?

Having said that any set of results aren’t the end of the world, it is part of human nature that we tend to be hard on ourselves. If you want to talk, confidentially, about your results, or your options going forward then please get in touch. I’ve tutored for a long time and have helped tutoring students, and their friends around results day for many years. Sometimes having someone to speak to can make a huge difference and help you get that much needed perspective!

The Samaritans are also available if you find that easier.

Ultimately – remember that exam results do not dictate your future, unless you let them!

That said, in the words of Harry Potter:


‘Working hard is important.

But there is something that matters even more, believing in yourself.’




Twitter: @tkirk039

Facebook: Tracy Kirk, Galashiels – I can pass out my number from a private message




A note to parents and family: I know that you all want your children to achieve the best results they are capable of, so please be as supportive of your teens as possible. Focus on the positive results, the lessons learnt – which may be gradual over the next few weeks and month – please DO NOT make repeated comments about any ‘failures’ because it is this that they remember 10-15 years down the line. It’s not the fact they achieved a hard fought for B in Higher English, but the fact their Dad kept going on about that fail in Higher Chemistry. I’m about if any parent wants a chat about results and options going forward but please remember that it is really very difficult to build up anyone’s confidence, but especially that of an adolescent who wants to achieve so much with their life! Let’s keep positive, and look to options for the future. Solutions not problems!