Children’s Mental Health Week served as an important reminder to all of us in the education sector to reflect on how we can best support our students. Exam results are easy barometers of success, but, at a more fundamental level, we must make sure our students spend their time at school as happy, confident and well-adjusted young people.
The importance of this was highlighted by the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results from the end of last year, showing the threats our students face to their mental health. This showed UK teenagers improving in academic international school rankings but at worrying risk to their own happiness – in England 66 per cent of young people said they were sometimes or always worried, and the UK had some of the lowest overall scores for “life satisfaction”.
We have put in the hard yards at AET, the multi-academy trust where I am CEO, and we are seeing our school improvement strategies beginning to show real traction on the ground. This is all very encouraging. But we believe our responsibilities reach beyond just exam results and Ofsted grades. Our mission is to provide our students with the tools they need to go on and lead remarkable lives, and so it is vital that we tackle any challenges that may prevent this.
Technology obviously plays a huge part in the lives of our students, and for too many students is having a less than positive impact on wellbeing and mental health. But technology can also provide some of the answers in helping us to identify and address some of these issues.
Protecting pupils' mental health
Last year we trialled an entirely new safeguarding strategy at Tendring Technology College in Clacton to manage student wellbeing. Using an artificial intelligence-based programme, students were asked to picture their own “space” – an imagined area in the student’s mind. They were asked questions to see whether their space changed after different factors; for example, if they were to go outside or if someone else came in. The programme measured not only how they defined their space but also how they reacted to change and their approach to trusting others.
The software, developed by edtech firm STEER, tracked their answers over time to see if there was any change in how they defined their space, and the data collected allowed our staff to see if it brought cause for concern. If there was a significant shift it could be a sign that they needed support – which could be as light touch as a chat with a form tutor, a session with a school councillor or even bringing in professional help from outside the school.
The main benefit of the programme is that it is preventative rather than reactive – we are not waiting for a student to lash out to let us know they are struggling. Because there has been no obvious incident to trigger a response from the school, we can organise a lighter touch intervention that students are more likely to accept and not simply reject out of hand.
Indeed, a number of our students do not realise how the software has impacted on them; many would confidently insist that they have had no engagement with the programme when in reality they have received numerous subtle interventions. They receive the necessary help before they need it and so are subtly steered back on track.
The programme worked. Having piloted the scheme in November 2018 across the key stage 3 cohort, which consists of roughly 1,000 students, we saw a 20 per cent reduction in self-harm incidents across the school. Over the summer holidays, there was an incredible 93 per cent reduction in crisis admissions at hospital.
We have decided it is time to take this software to the next level. We have taken the decision to invest further in this programme, rolling it out to a further 10,000 students this year to see how much impact it can have on an even bigger scale.
Of course, software alone will never be a silver bullet. The programme works because our brilliant safeguarding team used the information it was providing to be even more targeted in their work and to better focus their efforts.
Like the case of one Year 8 boy, who when he first joined us was seemingly on a path to destruction. With a tumultuous home life, and struggling with the transition to secondary school, he could well have become just another sad statistic. The programme helped our safeguarding team to understand his needs ahead of a serious incident, and he is now happy, well-adjusted and an exemplary student.
As we consider the mental health of our students, we must confront the reality that if we are serious about turning around lives then we cannot make excuses and avoid the tough challenges. Our students deserve to leave school and go on to lead remarkable lives, and we must do whatever we have to in order to make that happen.
Julian Drinkall is chief executive of Academies Enterprise Trust