A friend of mine sent me over this article about Artificial Intelligence (AI) being used in schools to detect self-harm and bullying. I think most of us can agree that trying to identify mental health problems in young people is fantastic. I’m also sure that many people have reservations when they hear AI. Well, I have a few more reservations about STEER’s AS tracking.
What is it?
It’s a test, which pupils take twice a year. AI is then used to “to identify patterns of bias linked to mental health risks”. This generates tracking data on each student. Teachers can then use this data to provide specific guidance to students. Students can also access their own data from the age of 16.
My first thought reading this was that the last thing young people need to worry about is another test. And they will worry about it. I remember exam anxiety leaving me in a dark bedroom for days on end with migraines. Exams, and the pressure around them, are a huge cause for mental health issues in young people. Adding a new one will only add to that stress.
Next, we come to how this test is graded. It uses the colours red, amber and green to label children according to their mental wellbeing. One of the first things we all learn in school is that a green tick is good, and a red x is bad. It is wrong to extend that same system to a child’s mental health. This reinforces the idea that struggling is bad. While young people may not access this data about themselves until age 16 – it might be passed on by teachers or parents. Even if only teachers see this data, many of us have this same unconscious bias and it’s something we shouldn’t continue, particularly in the context of wellbeing.
Then we need to consider how effective such a test actually is. On STEER’s website, they give an example of Millie who they tell us “fakes the school’s pupil wellbeing survey”. STEER claims this is harder to do with AS Tracking. There is an association between high intelligence and mental disorders. The young people struggling and hiding it are the same young people who can work out which answers the adults want to hear. They know the answers that get them the green tick. While action plans are not supposed to be disclosed to pupils – they notice more than they are often given credit for. This means they might learn to adjust answers for subsequent tests. This can lead to skewed results that show mental health is improving, when it may be that children are learning to hide it better.
Using this tracking allows schools to see how they rank against other schools. This can be used to see what other schools are doing to improve things – and that is a good thing. However, it can also be used in a very negative way. This can be used as another competition to say ‘our school is better than yours’. It’s no secret that attending a school that has a high academic ranking can open more doors when applying to universities and jobs. What’s to stop AS Tracking being used in a similar fashion?
Then we need to consider what other ways that data might be used. It could be used to sort children into different classes. There’s no reason that this technology couldn’t be extended into universities, so your tracking follows you there. And from there, extended in to the workplace. An individual’s data could be used to decide if they get the place, or the job. Plus, of course, there is money to be made in the sale of personal data. I imagine data on mental wellbeing would be considered incredibly valuable.
Addressing the real problems
It’s important to remember where the real problems lie. Mental health services are severely underfunded. Often, those who do seek support are left on extremely long waiting lists, or get a very minimal amount of help that doesn’t meet their needs, or receive no support at all.
School is the most common cause of stress for teenagers. We need to reevaluate how we assess young people, and how often. This would not only take stress off children, but off their teachers. Maybe if teachers weren’t so overworked, they would have more time to notice and address red flags – that often are already quite apparent if looked for.
A 13-year-old girl or boy isn’t going to tell a teacher whether they’re feeling popular or thinking about self harm, so getting reliable information is very difficultDr. Simon Walker – quote taken from Sky News
Dr. Simon Walker, who developed AS tracking said this: “A 13-year-old girl or boy isn’t going to tell a teacher whether they’re feeling popular or thinking about self harm, so getting reliable information is very difficult”. I say maybe that’s one of the problems we need to address. If young people don’t feel able to talk – no test is going to fix that. Identifying that there’s an issue wont fix the fact that they don’t feel able to open up. Social media is identified as something that puts pressure on young people. Maybe instead of more AI and apps, we should consider teaching children how to talk.
I am all for finding new ways to help anyone struggling – but especially early intervention with young people. I’m sure that AS Tracking has been developed with the best intentions. I just have concerns that it will be used as a way for schools to claim they’re doing something about mental health, when in fact the real problems run far deeper. It’s time to reduce the pressure on young people, overhaul the education system and how young people are assessed. It’s time to stop funding tests, and start funding education and healthcare.
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