My work over the past decade has taken me into hundreds of educational institutions in the state and independent sectors, across comprehensive, grammar, academy, free, co-ed, single-sex, faith, SEN, tiny, huge, rich, poor, rural, city-based, traditional and progressive schools all over the UK and sometimes beyond.
My critics often say my observations about the patterns I notice are "anecdotal" and therefore not worthy of taking into consideration. But there are few others who have the privilege of immersing themselves into such a wide range of schools – Ofsted does, but unlike with that organisation, no one is putting on their best face for me. I get to see what they’re really like, on a normal sort of day.
My research in conducting focus groups, with pupils, teachers and parents in a cross-section of these schools, doesn't follow the format of a traditional study, nor should it be used a substitute for such – but it’s not nothing, either. Some might even call it "qualitative".
Anyway, there are a few things I’ve learned.
One is that a school’s reputation within its community often doesn’t match its reality. I’ve had a cab driver refuse to drop me off outside a school near a council estate because the pupils were "rough" and he’d "get his hubcaps stolen if he stopped". It turned out that, whilst quite a few of the students did have one parent in prison or came from other challenging home circumstances, they were some of the sweetest young people I’ve ever encountered. Conversely, I’ve heard locals rave about one school’s reputation for academic excellence and how "everyone’s trying to get their kids in there" only to emerge shuddering after spending a day experiencing staff screaming at pupils and at each other for no apparent reason, pupils looking at me with wide, sad eyes like puppies in an RSPCA advert.
Ultimately, it’s impossible to tell much about a school from how it appears on paper. In my experience, the twin considerations of the vision of its leadership and the relationships between staff and pupils are everything – and those are difficult to quantify.
Writing my latest book, A Beginner’s Guide to Being Mental, which is part-autobiographical, led me to examine my school experience in the context of what I now know about the system more broadly. I went to a school that was technically "comprehensive" but was in an affluent catchment area, with many parents, I now realise, having chosen to move there purely to get their children into one of a handful of schools in the area. I was one of a small percentage of pupils from outside the catchment area selected on academic merit.
Give teachers the freedom to do their job properly
From this point of view, I am whatever the education equivalent of a champagne socialist is, in that I essentially benefitted from a grammar-style entry system. Yet I passionately believe in the equality that comes from the comprehensive vision of education. My family was objectively poor at that point (we were living in one room of our ex-council house with a kettle, toaster and stinky standalone heater), and getting a good quality education is a major reason why I am now undeniably middle-class. However, I can’t help but think about all the children who came from similar circumstances to mine who didn’t get the same opportunities.
So, why was my school conducive to mental wellbeing? The average onset age for anxiety and depression is 14. Whilst I had panic attacks and some issues around food from the age of 10, I functioned well. I enjoyed school; it represented a happy space for me. As well as liking the majority of my classes, I also took part in school plays, debating teams, was eventually deputy head girl and had a helluva lot of fun. In short, my school experience gave me "resilience" long before that was a term on the tip of everyone’s tongue.
There are five fundamental human psychological needs (all equally important, so this list is not to be read Maslow’s hierarchy-style): love, purpose, achievement, belonging and to be heard and understood.
At school, I was given a lot of individual attention, and my talents were recognised and celebrated. I felt part of a community. I was given boundaries as well as the opportunity to voice my opinions. Whilst we didn’t have the same social understanding of mental health (I didn’t receive a diagnosis of either anxiety or an eating disorder until much later in life), what my teachers did have was a greater amount of time and autonomy than most do today, as well as the instincts to know that these things were important.
The rapid increase in mental illness amongst young people, coupled with the seismic shifts in culture heralded by technology and social media, represent an opportunity to reshape the education system and redefine its priorities.
In my opinion, we should be taking steps to counteract increased paperwork for teachers and less time and breathing space for everybody.
Today, it is those who manage, in much more challenging times, to allow their staff the freedom to do their job effectively – where there is trust and fondness between teachers and pupils and where the one consideration applied to everything is not "will this be on the exam?" – who make for what I consider to be the best schools. And the chance to attend such a school should be an opportunity given to each and every child.
Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here