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How can the school system better protect young people’s mental health?

Tom-Middlehurst-finalThe second in a series of three articles presenting highlights from one of the discussions and debates that SSAT have hosted over the past three years, relating to educational reform and policy-making. This roundtable discussion was introduced by Natasha Devon, then the government’s mental health champion, who later expressed delight in the forthright and wide-ranging discussion.

Among other things, the discussion considered the role of schools and the school sector specifically in causing, preventing and treating mental health issues.

There was almost unanimous agreement that increased pressures on schools to meet accountability measures risked contributing to a worsening of mental health among young people. There was a view that schools must learn to say no; they must prioritise, make best use of their professional expertise, and avoid being entirely driven by what they perceive Ofsted wants. Anticipating the inspectorate’s requirements can lead directly to increased stress among both pupils and teachers.

There was less agreement about the interplay between the increased autonomy of schools and their ability to respond to changing circumstances. Some people felt that increased fragmentation in the sector means that there is little coherence in the commissioning of counselling services. Tom Rose, head of secondary school development at Place2Be, pointed out that school budgets are tightening, and he was being told by schools that they had to make choices between hiring teaching staff or counsellors. Natasha Devon cited the discrepancies in provision available – too often there was not enough in the primary phase, whereas in secondary there were too many different services of variable quality, with the consequent difficulty for schools in knowing which interventions to use.

At the same time Steven Mallen, founder of MindEd Trust, and headteacher Chris Jeffreys agreed that there is a need for schools to develop their own whole-school approach in an organic way. A top-down approach is not the way forward; instead schools need to develop their own culture, their own support and interventions, their own responses to the changing demands. This position linked to a wider agreement that schools need to be clear about the purpose of education and their vision for what they want for their pupils. It was timely that the government’s education select committee had initiated a debate about the purpose of education.

It is unlikely, and even undesirable, that there should be one single answer to schools’ roles in mental health. But different schools, addressing their different priorities and preoccupations, serving their different communities, will want to be sure about what they see as the purpose of education and how to achieve it, with all aspects of children’s health as a key element.

Of course, many schools are already doing outstanding work in this field and have been doing so for some time, a point initially made by Bethlem and Maudsley Hospital School head John Ivens and repeated throughout the discussion. We can and must learn from those schools with a track record of successfully supporting the mental health of their pupils. And we must generate more opportunities to share good practice and celebrate successes.

However, under increased financial constraints there is a growing tendency in some schools to select interventions which are perceived as cheap options, rather than those which are known to be most effective. There is an appetite for peer-to-peer support, for example; indeed there is evidence to show that this can be highly effective. But the issue of stigma attached to mental illness and the complex nature of some ill health mean that it may not always be the right intervention; professional expertise may often be more suitable. Natasha Devon quoted a young person who, in talking to government ministers, said ‘peer-to-peer support is important but needs careful management and supervision. It is not the be all and end all.’

The role(s) of social media

It can be difficult for the current generation of teachers and leaders to tackle the issues around the role of social media in mental health; their use and understanding of social media is different from that of young people who have grown up with it.

There was broad recognition too, of course, of the strong link between social media and mental health issues, particularly in the case of cyber-bullying. Natasha Devon said, ‘bullying in childhood almost always results in mental health issues.’

While much of the discussion focused on the inherent risks and the difficulties of supervision associated with social media, it was also pointed out that social media can be an invaluable source of support for vulnerable young people. Through it, they can find a network of peers and experts who can provide confidential and relevant empathy and support.

A number of contributors argued that, as young people use online sources and social media so much, we need to make the most of the opportunities presented by those channels of communication and networks to support their mental health. Steve Mallen highlighted the benefits of using anonymous online counselling services and online cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) courses.

Teachers’ mental health

The final emerging theme arose from a consideration of teachers’ mental health, and how this relates to changes in education policy.

Several of those present recalled instances of teachers regularly distressed, expressing feelings of no longer being able to cope with the demands of the job. Tom Rose called for more training on mental health in ITT and ongoing CPD. It was also argued that poor teacher mental health and stressed teachers mean that the workforce is less well able to create the conditions for good pupil wellbeing.

We know that good teacher-pupil relationships are key to early intervention and targeted support. Often teachers are best placed to spot problems and know how to respond. They see the young people every day and know something of their changing behaviours, their social and family contexts and their relationships with peers. It is essential that we ensure that teachers are able to be there for the pupils they support, both socially and emotionally. This may mean ensuring that they have the capacity and the support from external agencies to fulfil their critical role, without feeling overstretched and under unhealthy pressure themselves.

In his summary of the discussion the meeting chair, Bill Watkin (now ceo of Sixth Form Colleges’ Association), identified one key notion that had emerged repeatedly during the debate: understanding. We need to secure greater and broader understanding, beyond preconceptions and beyond stigma, making the best use of the best evidence of what the issues are, what the causes are and what the effective solutions are.

With this understanding, school leaders – and the system as a whole – need to find ways to prevent mental health issues occurring, and when they do, to intervene swiftly. This may require new ways of working, and courageous and creative solutions during a period of increased austerity. However, the system should also look at what is already working well in many schools – and adopt or adapt these practices appropriately for local contexts.

Areas for further research

Six key priorities emerged as areas where further research and understanding are needed, in order to better inform national and local policies, and school practices:

1. We need to understand what the problem is.

  • What is mental health, as opposed to mental illness?
  • What are the reasons young people experience mental illness?

2. We need to understand who is affected and why.

  • What is the significance of mental illness for others: classmates, teachers, family, friends?

3. We need to understand what a school is for and what its role must be

  • How can a school develop its own strategies to address the issues?
  • Can organic and school-specific approaches be implemented successfully (rather than a top-down one-size-fits-all policy)?

4. We need to understand the ways in which our changing society is shaping the current agenda.

  • What are the impacts of changes to the curriculum, social media, the capacity of external agencies and peer networks?
  • How can established and constant patterns and practices inform our approaches?
  • What can we learn from the past and present to inform the future?

5. We need to understand the impact of policy changes and the reductions in resources.

  • How will the ‘rigour revolution’ and its successors, and reduced capacity in schools and external agencies, affect young people’s mental health and our capacity to help them?

6. We need to understand what prevention looks like.

  • How can the school system better protect young people’s mental health?

Schools at the Heart of Educational Reform: an exploration of policy and its link to practice, a new publication covering all of the ideas and outcomes from recent SSAT discussions and debates, will be published at the end of summer term 2017. The full publication will be available to SSAT members on the Exchange, and a hard copy will be sent to all secondary member schools.


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