A blog from Mortal Fools: Is our education system ‘Relentless’?

Mortal Fools is a multi award-winning theatre, drama and creative learning charity working with young people across the North. In recent months Mortal Fools have reinvented their entire programme of work with young people and supporting them through the pandemic.

Their new show Relentless, supported by the #iwill Fund, unfortunately has had its tour cancelled by the the Covid-19 pandemic. The show focuses on what it means to be growing up and getting by in a chaotic new decade; young people’s fears, wants, hopes and voices laid bare, accompanied by a soundtrack worthy of your most-played Spotify top spot.

In this blog, a young person from Mortal Fools shares their perspectives on the role of education. They have requested to remain anonymous.

A Mortal Fools Panel – What could UK education look like post-pandemic?

Hear young people and staff from Mortal Fools share their perspectives on how we can reshape the education system.

Why should one exam, or one bad day determine the rest of my life?

I am an 18 year old young company within Mortal Fools’  ‘Ensemble’ group. With Mortal Fools I have the opportunity to produce original theatre work collaborating with fellow young people around themes and issues important to our generation today. 

Our work tours across the North to theatre venues and we get to connect with other young people and adult audiences as part of the tour. During our regular Youth Theatre sessions and within the devising process of our productions, ideas revolving around the mental health of today’s youth are recurring and frequently the topic of discussion – too frequent to ignore. 

Within this blog, I want to reflect on my own experiences with mental health during ‘pre-lockdown’ life, inside an education system which I believe needs to be changed.

Reflecting on my school experience, it is clear to me that there is a direct correlation between my deteriorating mental health and the increase in the importance of the examinations I had to sit that year. I also know that this is common with the majority of my peers. Staying up until ridiculous times cramming to prove my worth at the expense of my mental health was all too regular occurrence.

All this for a grade on a page – one I’m told will define my future? Is it really worth it? 

Despite hating this system and its effect on me, I still feel out of place for no longer subscribing to it so rigidly.

Prior to the lockdown, Mortal Fools’ latest touring performance ‘Relentless’ perfectly captured this experience of never-ending  pressure, of getting ready for endless exams as a young person, of attempting to find your way through ‘normal’ life. The performance also shines a light on social struggles and the issues behind our education system.

‘Relentless’ draws from the experiences of our young Ensemble members, creating an incredibly personal piece of theatre commenting on everything that was wrong with the fast paced way of life and an education system pushing for achievement and productivity in spite of our needs, wants and the declining mental health of young people.

I once looked at exams as being something that everyone has to do, something that is ‘part of life’ which I should just knuckle down for. In recent months, from working on ‘Relentless’ to then witnessing the pandemic unfold, I have started to view the exam system in this different light.

Life really is relentless. I have spent the majority of the latter years of my time at school desperate for a breather from the stress of constant deadlines and its rigid routine – however now I have had my fair share of time off during lockdown, I don’t feel much better for it. Recently, I have found myself caught in two minds. Should I use this time to relax as much as humanly possible, or instead to succumb to the overpowering guilt about my lack of productivity?

I should be able to switch off, but I just can’t. I feel almost conditioned to believe that if I’m not doing something beneficial to my studies, then I’m not doing anything at all – I’m just wasting time.

There is a line from an opening scene of Relentless: “You are being judged on your ability to memorise and regurgitate information in a set time period – which will ultimately prepare you for later life’’.

This irony – that exams create a false situation which won’t actually be replicated in life – has stuck with me. I feel strongly that exams don’t prove anything. So why must they be undertaken by everybody? 

That this year’s Year 11s and 13s await their grades without sitting exams in the first place surely has proven that they’re not necessary. Right now is time to rethink the place of exams in our school system – a  system proving so detrimental to the mental health of young people.

After all, why should one exam or one bad day determine the rest of my life? I’ve heard the phrase “The new normal” being used a lot recently and it has made me wonder. We have become so accustomed to these systems, and they have been unchallenged for so long. 

Could the new normal be something a bit different, one without constant exams, one that prioritises real learning, one that cares for our well-being?