Leading Headteacher Dismisses Reports on Epidemic of Anorexia in Independent Schools

Posted on: 15 Jul 2014

By Jo Heywood, headmistress of Heathfield School, Ascot

Jo Heywood was dismayed about reports of the silent epidemic of anorexia sweeping through independent schools...

In common with many Heads, I was dismayed about recent stories in The Times and Sunday Times talking about ‘A silent epidemic of anorexia sweeping through the country’s top independent schools’.

The stories quoted so-called experts, often speaking anonymously, who suggested that girls from aspirational families were the “fastest-growing” group using mental health services as they struggled to cope with the pressure to achieve top grades.

Reading further into the story, there were claims that ‘top private schools are in denial about the scale of the problem because they do not want to damage their brands’.

“Being high-achieving, perfectionist and competitive are all traits that are celebrated in highly academic girls’ schools,” Susan Ringwood, of the eating disorder charity BEAT apparently told The Times. “They are also among serious risk factors contributing to an eating disorder.” There were also claims that independent schools ‘unlike the state sector’ do not have guidelines on the pastoral and psychological care they have to provide.

This latter claim is not only unfair but untrue as the independent sector is overseen by the Independent Schools Inspectorate. In my experience, the ISI place just as much importance on pastoral care as academic standards when they are inspecting boarding schools – as I am sure they do when inspecting independent day schools.

Nevertheless, the statistics speak for themselves on the rise in anorexia victims. There is no disagreement that the most likely demographic to suffer from an eating disorder are in the 14-25 age bracket but I believe that stereotyping girls who attend the UK’s independent schools, and further single out girls at girls’ schools as the most likely anorexia victims, just stereotypes not only our schools but the social background and gender of a child affected by this serious mental illness.

Girls and women are still more likely to suffer anorexia than boys but a growing number of boys do suffer. A groundbreaking study from the National Institute for Health Research last year found that by the age of 13, one in 3 girls and one in 5 boys were upset or distressed by their weight. One in ten pre-teens and two-thirds of 13 year old girls were also ‘worried about getting fat’. These statistics are deeply concerning.

As a school, sweeping this issue under the carpet to protect your ‘brand’ as The Times has suggested is simply unthinkable for any responsible education institution and to suggest so is at best unhelpful, at worst simply symptomatic of the prejudice facing independent schools in this country.

All the girls’ schools I have worked in and have worked with are incredibly open in tackling this complex illness and other eating disorders, both in and out of the classroom, whether that is from being proactive in tackling early signs of the illness to trying to tackle its root causes before it even manifests itself. It goes without saying that our pupils have access to all the appropriate medical care they might require.

At my school, we are completely candid about discussing eating disorders and body image through our PSHE lessons and through group discussions and listening to speakers and we will continue to be so. We even look - where we can - to make cross-curricular links. I currently have my Form IV GCSE Drama students working on plays which address eating disorders, with a view to them performing them to Forms I and II (and possibly Form III). We find that messages coming from their peers who are just a little older can be just as powerful – if not more powerful – than simply being taught about eating disorders by adults and we strive to introduce such links where we can.

Personally, I really do believe the rise in instances of this illness goes hand in hand with the growth of celebrity culture and the bombardment of so-called images of perfection through 24-7 media channels, causing self-esteem issues in our young people. You only need to look at the growing eating disorder statistics for boys to see that they too are affected by the images of perfection they see in the media and on the internet.

The debate reared its head again this week/recently when Vogue Editor Alexandra Shulman said she was ‘bored’ with the debate on skinny models and that people simply did not want to see real models on the front of Vogue.

In many ways she is right but she is coming from a viewpoint where she knows how the fashion industry works and she is asking us to accept models do their job just as actors and actresses do. Maybe and most of us are now savvy enough to know about the world of airbrushing and the smoke and mirror effects that go into a fashion shoot. Through education at schools, I believe this message is indeed finally also getting through to teenagers. But, while Ms Shulman has campaigned for bigger models on the catwalk, she is not doing youngsters any favours by telling the world that thin equals the fantasy and that’s what people want.

The explosion in the world of celebrity and the cult of thinness and impossible perfection has indeed become the norm for many young women and that is the nub of the problem. While teenagers might be starting to wise up, those even younger are more affected than ever. Statistics quoted in the Telegraph recently reveal the number of pre-teen children treated in hospital for eating disorders has tripled in four years while 90 per cent of all women are said to experience body image anxiety.

In the fashion world where reputed designers like Victoria Beckham are stick thin, haute couture is made in tiny sizes and a plus size is ludicrously size 12 or above, it is little wonder that Heads like me feel they should push back when our schools are blamed for the pressures causing anorexia. Now more than ever independent schools are doing the utmost to fight the causes of these insidious disorders and the sham and fake worlds of celebrity and showbiz which have seen them accelerate.

This blog first appeared in Independent School Parent magazine.

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