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Children's mental health in schools - pupils of Lord Wandsworth College sit in the shade of a treeChildren’s mental health has hit a worrying low, according to a raft of research from charities and professional bodies. From anxieties caused by exam stress and social media to the devastating toll of the pandemic, the picture has never been starker.

Mental health support in schools 

Schools have a key part to play both in terms of prevention and picking up the pieces when things escalate, but the picture here isn’t great either. ‘Provision in schools is patchy and fragmented – having a counsellor isn’t even mandatory in schools,’ says David Stephenson, senior policy and campaigns officer at the charity Mind.

Good news is that Ofsted and ISI now assess personal development, which includes mental health in schools. Areas such as resilience, confidence, independence, and how to keep mentally healthy are all covered. As part of pastoral care in schools, all schools have to provide a mental health and relationships curriculum, and the government has committed to a £1,200 training grant for each school to ensure a whole school approach, albeit by 2025.
Stephenson acknowledges that the more mentally healthy schools have ‘a school nurse, mental health support teams and the majority of secondary schools now have counselling for children,’ but is concerned that this ‘doesn’t go far enough. We are aware of staff being overstretched and schools under-resourced - some tell us they are having to use pupil premium funding to bring in external support to deal with mounting mental health problems.’

Awareness training for teachers 

A positive step towards good mental health in children is the growth in training staff in mental health first aid. At Lord Wandsworth College, a co-ed day and boarding senior school in Hampshire, this goes for all staff. ‘It means they know what to look out for and what to do when a pupil comes to them – in some cases that will be a listening ear and reassurance, other times support or signposting,’ says headteacher Adam Williams, who adds that staff wellbeing in schools is also a priority for them.

Peer support

The school has a peer mentoring programme whereby young people are trained to support one another and break down the stigma often associated by mental health. ‘Sometimes you feel safer and more comfortable talking to someone nearer your age – and they are just more likely to understand,’ said a pupil on our recent visit. The school also involves parents, running talks and giving practical advice on how to support teenagers.

But while the discourse around teenage mental health is often negative, Williams says, ‘We try to keep wellbeing in education positive - making sure pupils get fresh air, are active, get opportunities to do things they enjoy, don’t feel pressured and talk openly about feelings. The idea is to first and foremost be preventative.’

Wellbeing hubs

A dedicated wellbeing hub is one way to address mental health issues in children. At Malvern St James, an all-through girls’ day and boarding school, The Hive is described by Zinnia Wilkinson, director of pastoral care, as ‘a comfortable, welcoming space where pupils can just be but also see a counsellor for a 30-minute session just for one or two weeks because sometimes that’s all they need.’

Pastoral support in schools can also include a wellbeing dog, which Wilkinson says ‘provides an opportunity to walk and talk which can be a great way in to get pupils who struggle more with opening up.’ That Wilkinson’s role is non-teaching is important in itself – where that isn’t the case, it can be harder for pupils and parents to access them.

Mental health vs grades

Wilkinson points out that parents often perceive a school to be good pastorally or academically, but not both. ‘In fact if a school is pastorally strong, it’s in the best position to thrive academically,’ she says.

Sophie Blunt, housemistress at Wycombe Abbey, a day and boarding senior school for girls, agrees. Outstanding pastoral care might not be the first thing you think of at one of the top academic schools for girls, and yet many of the parents we spoke to whose daughters had needed intervention were full of praise for how the school had responded. ‘Wellbeing education is at the heart of our curriculum – it’s on timetable for every girl,’ she says.

For Dean Taylor, associate headteacher at Seven Kings School, a co-ed state school for 4-18 in east London, it’s the relationship between staff and pupils that holds the key to positive mental health in schools. ‘The ethos is more important than anything and you can walk around this school and see that it’s inclusive, friendly, safe and with clear and consistent boundaries,’ he says. The school pays particular attention to pressure points such as exam time and makes sure every child has a trusted adult. There’s a joined-up approach with the SENCO too, in the knowledge that youngsters with conditions such as ADHD and autism can be particularly at risk of mental health problems. ‘The most vulnerable pupils have a one-page profile that’s shared with all staff,’ he adds.

Discipline

Nearly half of young people are disciplined at school for behaviour related to their mental health, according to Mind’s latest research. One in four school staff were aware of a student being excluded from school because of their mental health. Seven Kings avoids this by never taking behaviour at face value. ‘It’s about conversations and getting pupils to reflect if they’ve broken rules. Were you in the right place at the right time with the right people, and if not what can we do to fix that? Who was affected? And what could you do next time? These repetitive questions from all staff help them self-regulate,’ says Taylor.

Mental health in primary schools

Parents should be enquiring about mental health in primary schools too, says Lauren Munro-Hall, PE and PSHE teacher at Notting Hill & Ealing High School and spokesperson for the Girls’ Day School Trust. ‘Right from year 1, we introduce emotional literacy and we prioritise resilience.’ But don’t just take schools’ word for it on strategies, she says. ‘In our open evenings, we encourage parents to talk to the girls themselves. They ask them things like, what are you covering in PSHE at the moment? If you need support, who do you go to?’

‘Schools should be able to tell you what they’ve improved since Covid,’ adds Ruth Simmonds, project manager for schools peer education at the Mental Health Foundation. ‘And it’s important to know how they’re measuring what they do too – otherwise it’s just a tick box exercise.’

Of course it’s not just up to schools to solve the current mental health crisis. In fact, says David Stephenson of Mind, ‘we find that not all young people want support for these problems in schools, which is why we would like to see more hubs to help young people out in the community.’

‘Don’t be afraid to ask your school for help if you think your young person needs it,’ says Melanie Sanderson, managing editor at The Good Schools Guide. ‘Although there are varying degrees of provision, mainly depending upon budget, all good schools should be focused on working in partnership with families to ensure the wellbeing of their pupils. Transparency is important and your first port of call should be your child’s form teacher or tutor who should be key in helping elevate your concerns to the appropriate staff member.’

Photo credit: Lord Wandsworth College

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