An academy chain is planning to train all its staff as mental health first-aiders.
The E-Act multi-academy trust, which comprises 25 primary and secondary schools, will also be launching its own mental health curriculum, intended to ensure that all pupils understand the issues that may affect them.
The trust’s chief executive, David Moran, has chosen to finance the scheme – which will cost £420,000 annually – from E-Act’s central coffers, because he believes that good mental health is vital if pupils are to be able to learn.
E-Act’s internal surveys show that almost a third of its pupils feel stressed most or all of the time. And more than 130 pupils said they were anxious or worried most or all of the time with more than 100 often feeling down, depressed, hopeless or teary.
“That’s not right,” Mr Moran said. “When you’ve got stats like that, how are those kids going to learn science? They’re not, are they? Why would you care, if you’ve got baggage which is not being addressed?”
Most schools are currently training one or two members of staff in mental health first-aid, but Mr Moran hopes to train every teacher in every E-Act school.
The aim is to train 500 members of E-Act staff as mental health first aiders each year and 10 members of staff as instructors in mental health first aid, at a cost of £320,000 each year.
'It's about who you feel safe to talk to'
“If you think, we’ve got nearly 15,000 children,” he said. “Their mental health needs are not going to be met by 25 people.”
And the trust also hopes to destigmatise mental health issues, through sheer force of numbers.
“If you only have one person in a school, it becomes a big deal if you have to seek them out,” said Jane Millward, E-Act deputy chief executive, who is overseeing the scheme. “If you have to make an appointment with a special someone in a special room, that almost accentuates the stigma. But, if this is just what we do – we just talk about it in our academy – then it’s about trust. It’s about who you feel safe to talk to.”
The second part of the scheme is a £50,000 bespoke mental health curriculum, to be introduced into all E-Act academies.
While all schools will adopt the curriculum, it will vary according to the age of the pupils and the regions in which they live.
“I think the issues of mental health in Sheffield, for example, might be very different from the issues faced by children in Brent, in North London,” said Ms Millward. “I don’t think you can generalise.
“Rather than an off-the-shelf curriculum, we want it to be very specific to the context in which they live.”
“It becomes very individualised for each academy,” said Alison Quinn, E-Act special educational needs and disabilities leader for the Midlands. “It will depend on what their differences and experiences are. They're bringing their own ideas, and seeing what we can do for them.”
There are, however, certain areas that will be common to all schools. At primary, for example, pupils will be discussing emotions and their impact on wellbeing.
At secondary, meanwhile, pupils will discuss anxiety, depression, psychosis, eating disorders and self-harm.
“They need to know about these things,” Ms Quinn said. “To know that people are experiencing these things, and it’s OK to talk about it.
“But we’re also allowing children to identify what’s important to them, so that, if they are particularly concerned about something, we’ll give them time and space to talk about it.”
'Someone who understands'
Individual schools will also decide how best to deliver the curriculum. Some will allocate tutor-group sessions to it. Others may decide to have off-timetable days to discuss the issues raised. Staff will also have the option to bring conversations about mental health issues into lesson time in other subjects.
“Should it come up in a maths lesson?” Millward said. “Absolutely it should. Because it needs to be something where there’s no stigma to talking about it.”
The final £50,000 in the ringfenced budget will be allocated to train 200 members of staff a year as adult mental health first-aiders, and six members of staff as adult mental health first aid instructors.
The aim is not only for staff to look out for one another, but also to offer drop-in surgeries for parents and other adults in the community.
“If mum wants to come in and talk to someone in our academies, then she will be able to do that,” Ms Millward said. “Sometimes, they just need to talk to someone who understands.”
Equally, adults will be able to use the surgeries to raise concerns about any of the pupils at the academy.
All mental health first aiders will also have the knowledge necessary to refer pupils and adults on to specialist agencies.
Focus on the children
David Moran does acknowledge, however, that child and adolescent mental health services' (CAMHS) thresholds are often so high that it can be almost impossible for even the neediest pupils to access the support they need.
He has therefore appointed regional safeguarding leads, whose role is to follow up individual children’s cases and ensure that they are not left dangling.
“What we will do is make sure that child gets taken to the appropriate agency – and we will stay with that child until they access the right sort of resources,” he said.
“If I start to see a pattern, either regionally or nationally, then potentially there’ll be a requirement for us to act, either regionally or nationally, to work with the local providers, to turn around and say: ‘Well, how can we provide some additional support for these children?’
“Because our focus has got to be on those children. It’s got to be about making sure that their needs are being met.”