What do Vietnam and England have in common? Poor mental health in schools

And the reason for it is an education system that prioritizes competition over student well-being.


A lot of Vietnamese parents dream of their children studying in England hoping that it would offer their children a better education than Vietnam. It might be true in some respects but overall life satisfaction of high school students in both countries is very low.

Exams are a major cause of this dissatisfaction. “73% of teachers [in England] said they believed the mental health of their students had deteriorated since the government introduced its “reformed” GCSEs [General Certificate of Secondary Education exams]” (Source: The Guardian)

The reform resulted in the UK coming 69th in a list of 72 countries when it comes to 15-year-olds’ life satisfaction. The major change the reform brought was more challenging material and more weight on final exams. Students need to take 30 or more exams within a few weeks to get their GCSE results.

The students spend weeks memorizing material ahead of the exams just to pass them and then forget everything they had just “learnt” just so they can get the Certificate and be able to enter university or the workforce. A lot of importance is placed on these exams, but they don’t prepare the students for real life at all.

Instead, they rob them of creative and independent thinking and physical exercise because they have to sit still for very long hours. Moving your body is important at every age but when you’re a 15-year-old you have a lot more energy to use up. And if you’re not able to do that, you get really bad anxiety, which contributes to the students’ poor mental health.

The reality is very similar to that in Vietnam – children are put under a lot of pressure to perform well in exams, just for the sake of ranking their schools and students high. In other words, it’s all about competition and none about children’s well-being or teaching them skills they’d actually use, for example, collaboration and effective communication.

Your children can get both – high quality education and life satisfaction

George Monbiot finishes his article England’s punitive exam system is only good at one thing: preserving privilege asking, “What would a fair, rounded, useful 21st-century education look like?” Well, no need to look too far from England – the answer lies in a northern European country called Finland.

The Finnish students outperform the students in the UK but not at the expense of their mental well-being. Instead, Finland is the happiest country in the world for the 4th year in a row, according to the World Happiness Report. So, what’s special about their education system?

They don’t rank their schools or students because they understand that they can benefit more from cooperation than competition. The children get assigned very little homework and spend around 4 to 5 hours at school. And the only exam they have to sit is the National Matriculation Exam at the age of 16.

The Finnish system places a lot more emphasis on children being children, which means that they have time to relax and play and let their creativity run free.

Believe it or not, all of this results in great PISA scores. PISA (the Program for International Student Assessment) “is a worldwide study by OECD in nearly 80 nations of 15-year-old students’ scholastic performance on mathematics, science and reading.” (Source: FactsMaps)

In 2018, Finland made it to the top 10, while the UK didn’t, which goes to show that there is no need to study long hours, do lots of homework and sit difficult exams in order to perform well at school. In fact, all it does is suck joy out of studying. The Finnish children actually enjoy going to school and learning.

We can all learn a lesson here – it’s not about the quantity (school hours, homework, exams, etc) but quality and balance between work and play. As adults, we tend to forget that, which probably also stems from all the pressure that was put on us when we were growing up so here’s your permission to enjoy life more.