'Full marks to Theresa May for addressing the issue of mental health in our schools'

But improving the wellbeing of pupils deserves pride of place on every politician's manifesto, writes one educationist

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Theresa May has promised to scrap the Mental Health Act and introduce a new act designed to reduce the number of people being detained. As signalled from the start of her premiership, she intends to provide mental health support in every school, with a member of staff trained in mental health first aid.

Party manifestos at general elections are important not only because they set out a programme for the government to follow over the next five years, but because they show what kind of party they are and how they are likely to address the issues that will move to the top of the agenda during their period of office.

In education, the major issues for the new government are already clear to see, and they are well articulated in the manifesto proposals sent to the major parties by teacher unions and other education organisations. The issues are: funding problems and a fairer funding formula across the country; teacher recruitment and retention, especially in disadvantaged areas; and the inevitable fallout from the Gove era reforms to exams, curriculum and accountability.

Maximum parks for a manifesto encompassing mental health

Growing concern about the mental health of children in this country deserves to be reflected in the manifestos, so full marks to Mrs May for addressing the issue of mental health. I wrote in January about the concern that school leaders and teachers have long had about the mental health of children, which they see at first hand as an issue at least as important as children’s physical health and has received a good deal of attention from governments, under pressure from Jamie Oliver and others.

But mental health issues tend to be less visible, so they are generally lower in the order of political priorities. Now, however, the issue has been put on the front pages, not only by the prime minister, but by Princes Harry and William and the Duchess of Cambridge too.

On the day that the Daily Telegraph ran their interview with Prince Harry, the chief executives of YoungMinds and 15 other charities published a letter calling on political parties to recognise the problem of child mental health in their manifestos. The letter stated:

“Children and young people face a huge range of pressures – from exams to cyberbulling, from body image to finding a job when they finish education. An estimated three children in every class have a mental health condition, one in four experience emotional distress, and rates of self-harm are skyrocketing.

“While it is not the role of schools to replace the specialist support that mental health services provide, they can and should play a crucial role in developing the skills young people need to cope and flourish in today’s world. But at the moment the education system is fundamentally unbalanced, with an over-emphasis on exams and too little focus on student wellbeing.

"We want to see greater recognition for the good work schools do on wellbeing, proper funding for wellbeing initiatives, and mental health as an integral part of teacher training. It is time to ensure that the wellbeing of students is as important as academic achievement in schools.”

Sometimes, of course, it is the actions of politicians that makes the situation worse, putting pressures on children that many find it hard to cope with. This needs to be considered when governments are making changes to exams, tests and accountability systems.

Under-resourced 

Sometimes it is the inaction of the government that makes it hard for schools to give adequate support to those that need it. Nowhere is this more evident than in the under-resourcing of the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).

This is a service that schools value highly when it works well, as it does in some parts of the country. In these places, there is recognition that appointments need to be made quickly; that parents, who may suffer from mental health issues themselves, need to be involved; that schools need to be kept in the loop as diagnosis and treatment progress; and that a single key professional works with the child and observes him or her in all settings. 

According to the NHS CAHMS website:

“Children and young people may need help with a wide range of issues at different points in their lives. Parents and carers may also need help and advice to deal with behavioural or other problems their child is experiencing. Parents, carers and young people can receive direct support through CAMHS.”

The website goes on to explain that specialist CAMHS are NHS mental health services, comprising multidisciplinary teams with psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, nurses, occupational therapists and psychotherapists.

Don't add to the delays

The gradual deterioration in funding for CAMHS in many areas has meant that it is increasingly difficult for young people and their families to access this kind of specialist help. It is also hard for schools to access these services.

In January, Mrs May announced that the Care Quality Commission would be asked to review CAMHS services. That review is under way and is almost certain to report later in the year that, given the increasing number of young people with mental health issues, CAMHS is under-resourced for the job it was established to carry out.

Having a small amount of mental health expertise in each school may be helpful, but it will not solve the problem. Indeed, it may add to the delays already being experienced, with more cases being identified, leading to a bigger bottleneck at CAMHS.

New legislation takes a long time to go through Parliament – especially given the small amount of parliamentary time now available for non-Brexit issues – and then translate into practice on the ground. Children, parents and schools need action much more quickly than this, and that can only happen if the funding of CAMHS is substantially increased.

John Dunford is chair of Whole Education, a former secondary head, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and national pupil premium champion. His book, The School Leadership Journey, was published in November 2016. He tweets as @johndunford

For more Tes columns by John, visit his back catalogue.

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