Government mental health champion axed after criticising school testing

The Department for Education has denied the move was politically motivated

Siobhan Fenton@SiobhanFenton
Thursday 05 May 2016 14:26
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Natasha Devon has criticised government testing of young children, warning it could increase anxiety levels
Natasha Devon has criticised government testing of young children, warning it could increase anxiety levels

The Government’s mental health champion, who has criticised how extensive testing of young people could impact on their stress levels, has been dropped by the Department for Education, but the department has strongly denied that the decision to drop Natasha Devon, was appointed as the mental health tsar for schools last August, was a political move designed to silence criticism.

Last week, 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.

A DfE spokesperson said that Ms Devon’s role had been axed to avoid “confusion”. They said: “Natasha has done a great job helping us raise the profile of young people’s mental health since her appointment last year. Since that time, the independent NHS task force report has been published which recommended that a cross-government mental health champion be created – for this reason we have had to consider the department’s own role.

“We have asked Natasha and others who have been involved in our work to empower schools and young people to promote good mental health, to continue to work with us as we prepare to launch our activity later this year.”

Ms Devon said: "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. 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”.

With additional reporting by PA

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