Oliver James: It's a dog's life

The GCSE and A-level results are in, the tears shed and the screams of triumph screamed. With the degree results also finalised, it means that there is not a single 16- to 21-year-old in Britain who does not now know where they are ranked in relation to their peers, everyone put in their proper place. What no one seems to be asking is how this impacts on the emotional wellbeing of these children. The majority will leave the education system feeling like failures and, perhaps surprisingly, the damage is most acute at the top end of the system. Consider the case of Frank.

Tall, well built and every inch the perfect schoolboy at his major public school, he was head of everything there was to be head of. Teachers vied for his services. Just as some of his contemporaries attracted punishment for smoking, he attracted responsibility. He won a scholarship to Oxbridge and a cricketing Blue in his first year.

On the morning of his second-year university exams, he set off from the house he shared with friends. When he had not returned at 2am they became worried. He appeared 48 hours later with little memory of the intervening time. Forced to drop back a year, 12 months later he set off again to attempt the fence of these exams which, to a man of his calibre, should have been like a row of matchboxes. But exactly the same happened as before. This time, he took a year out before graduating with a Third Class degree.

During his year out he had travelled, and on graduation he took off again, ending up in a southern European city. He is still there, 10 years later, working as a waiter to support a regime of remarkable sexual promiscuity. Aged 35, he seeks a new sexual conquest every day, despite being recently married, and just as he excelled at school, now he excels in promiscuous sex.

Frank's obsession with high achievement consumed his self, and it was mercilessly exploited by his school. He had learnt to define himself so utterly through comparing his performance to others that he had completely lost sight of any purpose it might serve for him. When he left the little society that was his school and had choices, he quickly discovered there was no 'him' to make them. Only by escaping to a foreign land where he had no history could he begin the process of finding out what he wanted. He languishes in a repetitive, compulsive loop of pointless achievement, with sex merely having replaced academia and sport as the challenge.

Frank's sad story cannot be dismissed by suggesting he was suffering from a mental illness or that his hard-driving parents are an exception. There are all too many like him. While they have always existed (see Hermann Hesse's short novel, The Prodigy), the modern system is a prescription for depression, one of the reasons that a 25-year-old today is five times more likely to suffer from it compared with their Fifties equivalent.

oliver.james@observer.co.uk

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