It is said that, on average, three children in every classroom have a diagnosable mental health issue. One in five children will experience a mental health difficulty at least once in their first 11 years, and many adults with lifetime mental health issues can trace the symptoms back to childhood. This is a real source of concern for anyone working in a school. School leaders from the NAHT headteachers' union put pupil wellbeing and mental health as one of their top concerns. Not only are students not able to learn effectively if they and their classmates are not feeling safe and happy and well, it is increasingly difficult to know where to turn for help.
The child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) that schools, families and children rely on are under pressure from rising demand, growing complexity and inadequate budgets. The majority of local authorities have been forced to reduce their CAMHS budgets, and in some areas services do not offer the support that children need – waiting times are too long and thresholds for intervention are set too high. Pressure is being put on schools to help children, but as funding is reduced from local authorities, it is not being reallocated to schools, nor is training for these additional responsibilities being provided.
Schools are rising to the challenge as best they can, however, and there is a lot of excellent work being done. Some of that good practise will be shared at our Special Needs Conference in early March and our Decoding Mental Health event in May. The point is this: schools are having to find solutions themselves, and need support in doing so. Schools that can find money in their budgets are employing counsellors, which is a big part of the solution, but it is important that there is a whole-school approach to mental health. Sometimes children would prefer to turn to a teacher or leader or any school worker that they know best and trust the most, and training needs to reflect this reality. School workers need a basic grounding in identification, intervention, sources of support and appropriate actions.
'Focus on wellbeing'
The best strategy for promoting good mental health in schools is to encourage open and positive discussion of potential issues, focusing on general wellbeing for pupils and staff, and on fostering the resilience to deal with future problems, before crisis intervention is necessary. Place2Be does exactly that and shows how schools can best support children’s mental health.
The importance of this work should be properly recognised, with funding and training, but also with dedicated curriculum time. Statutory PSHE would be a big step forward in this and would give schools the guaranteed and protected space they need to tackle all sorts of issues facing their pupils, including mental wellbeing.
Experience in my own school backs up just how transformative these tactics can be. As a school in a deprived area with very challenging circumstances, we took a massive risk standing up for the approach we believe in. We were being pressured into year after year of interventions which were having no impact. We knew that children who were not in a secure place emotionally or mentally could not even begin to engage with learning. So we focused on school values and behaviours and emotional engagement, ensuring every day began with a wellbeing session. Children who had turmoil in their lives began to feel safe and engage with learning.
Employing family support workers who the parents trust enabled us to work with troubled families, signposting and supporting them, taking them to food banks, accessing the services that enable them to begin to support themselves. Securing the services of a firm of private social workers has meant we have permanent supervised social work students on site, able to work with families and alleviate the pressure for the local authority.
Children felt very much safer, they learnt through the wellbeing sessions how to unpack issues and become resilient. The biggest consequence of all we have done is what we knew would happen, but others did not trust it would: children became very enthusiastic and active learners, they asked questions, and their progress, particularly when they began to rebuild their self-esteem in upper key stage 2, accelerated. Our children are happy and they learn far better for that, simply because of the primary focus on emotional and mental wellbeing.
Children’s mental health is something schools can help with and all school leaders should aim for their schools to become mentally healthy. I hope that the government will eventually listen to the teaching profession, and to expert advice, and provide the necessary funding and training for all schools and services, in all areas. But for now, we can all get involved with Children’s Mental Health Week and raise awareness amongst our pupils, communities and staff, that mental health is something to be nurtured, not ashamed of.
Tony Draper is president of the NAHT headteachers' union. Since 2003, he has been headteacher at Water Hall Primary School in Milton Keynes. Over the past 13 years he has turned what was a struggling school into an "outstanding" one.