The motorway model of mental health risks

What have you been working on?

We’re interested in the characteristics of schools linked to pupil mental health risks and are trying to research what those factors might be. We measure specifically a cognitive function called “steering cognition”.

If you think of a pupil as a car, steering cognition (which is unrelated to IQ) regulates the steering, brakes and accelerator of the mind — in other words, of all the sensory stimuli, what we ignore and what we pay attention to.

We measure four aspects of steering cognition: children’s self-disclosure, trust of self, trust of other people and seeking change.

Good drivers regulate all four things. Children need to do that too. Pupils who are able to steer well can anticipate and adjust to be socially appropriate. Children with poor steering cognition can’t read the road and adjust to what is needed.

What’s interesting about it?

Steering cognition is not fixed; children can adjust it.

We’ve identified through our previous research that certain patterns of steering cognition have increased risk of mental health issues. The pattern we measure can predict with an 82 per cent accuracy the likelihood of certain welfare risks. So, for example, whether the child is likely to be self-harming, is being bullied or is not coping with the pressure at school.

Schools want to be environments that are safeguarding their children, and steering them better.

What did you find? 

We were interested to see whether differently ranked schools improved children’s steering cognition, or made it worse; we measured 21 schools in the UK ranked in terms of A-level performance (state and independent) comprising 7,000 pupils in years 8, 10 and 12.

We found that higher-ranking schools have narrower school roads than lower ranking schools and on those narrower roads, children are driving faster.

We’ve coined this the “motorway” model of education – think of Michael Gove and the approach of target-driven, narrow academic outcomes.

We lined up three components: the rank of the schools; the motorway characteristics of the school; and the mental health risks of the school’s pupils.

And we noticed that higher-ranking schools exhibit the motorway characteristics and in these schools, children exhibit steering patterns that are linked to higher mental health risks.

A probable cause of this relationship is a pattern called over-regulating, which means children are hyper-vigilant; they are continually self-monitoring and socially-monitoring to try to get things right.

We know from other studies that children who over-regulate over a long time have a tendency to veer off and crash – or have a meltdown.

What do you hope the impact will be?

We hope the government will become aware of the consequences of an overly academic agenda.

We believe it has prioritised speed over steering as an educational outcome. It wants to get children as far down the educational road as it can without being concerned about how they learn to relate to other people, or how they self-manage.

That seems to be out of a fear of being out-competed by the Asian economies, whose model of education is very “motorway”.

We want to tell the government: “You’ve gone down a route that has consequences that are not intended” and we want to provide ammunition for schools to start focusing on these other skills.

The skill of steering cognition is essential – not just for mental health, but also for success in business and in wider life.

Schools need to be able to start to think about measuring this component, not only for the mental health of children, but also because it will give them real-world employability.


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