The other night I pitched up at the local high school (along with, it seemed, every other parent in town - the enormous parking lot was rammed) for a screening of a film I'd read about in the New York Times.
Race to Nowhere was made by a California mother, Vicki Abeles, after she became concerned about the stress that her children were under in school. It deals with the pressures of homework, of over-scheduling children, of the desperate attempts to get into 'good' colleges - especially for children who are considered high achievers.
In the film, there are (real life) children who stay up till 2am to finish their homework; who stop eating, sleeping, who take Adderall, a drug prescribed for ADD, to stay awake; who admit readily to cheating in tests; who have nervous breakdowns and drop out of school. (One comment that really struck a chord was that we are raising a generation prepared to do anything, and to cut any corners, to get a high-paying job -and look at the bankers. We are paying the price.)
While there were probably always examples of teenagers who became over-stressed by school (I remember one or two at my school) it seems the problem is becoming more widespread, as American colleges, largely funded by donors, try to attract the best pupils and get the best results. This in turn leads schools to set ludicrous amounts of homework in an attempt to get their pupils into colleges....and parents to put pressure on their kids, not just to be academic, but to be sporty, arty, do community service, and - well, basically, there aren't enough hours in the day.
Race to Nowhere is an unusual film in that it has not been screened widely on general release, but instead has been taken up by parent groups and shown at schools across the USA. At our local school, it was followed by a Q&A session - and it seemed that it had really struck a chord with many parents.
My children are too young to be experiencing this yet, but it won't be long, and I'm sure that many of the same problems exist in the UK; particularly in competitive private schools. (The coalition's decision to raise tuition fees, can only, I am sure, only add to the pressure, as Universities, deprived of government funding, will compete more ruthlessly for the best students).
It raises all sorts of questions, not least - is academic success really the key to our kids' happiness? As the film points out, only about the top 5% of students are really academically brilliant - why put pressure on everyone else to try and be so? We might dream about our kids going to Harvard, or Yale or Oxford or Cambridge - but what about well-adjusted kids who will only ever get Bs and Cs? Or indeed, one who decides college is not for them and goes on to a vocational training course?
Personally, what I want is for my children to be happy, and to end up in a job that they enjoy. But will I find myself sucked into this hyper-competitive culture as they get older? Will my kids half-kill themselves with homework just so they can get a job in an investment bank and work long hours for big-buck bonuses? Or will they sink under the pressure of it all and drop out.....
This film made depressing viewing in some ways, but I hope it succeeds in its mission to make parents, schools and colleges sit up and take stock of what we are doing to our children. And I hope UK parents have a chance to see it at some point, too.