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'Measuring pupil wellbeing won't reduce the stigma around mental health – it will do the opposite'

Getting Ofsted to assess wellbeing will lead to schools 'hiding away' children with mental health issues, warns the former DfE mental health champion

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Getting Ofsted to assess wellbeing will lead to schools 'hiding away' children with mental health issues, warns the former DfE mental health champion

As I type, three of my close friends who are teachers are lying down in a dark room with a gin and tonic, following Ofsted inspections.

I can usually tell when I’m visiting a school and they’re "having their Ofsted" (even if the teacher I’m working with doesn’t immediately confess it to me, in hushed tones, in the same way you’d say: "I just had my smear test").

For a start, there are usually flowers in reception. I’m also usually instructed, Davina McCall-style, "Please don't swear during my class" (not that I’m accustomed to turning the air blue, you understand, but I will throw in the occasional ‘crap’, or something stronger for the sixth form).

I remember when my own school was having its Ofsted. I was actively kept away from the inspectors because my teachers feared I’d have too many opinions about what the school was getting wrong (difficult to believe, I realise).

In other words, everyone knows that the school that is presented to an Ofsted inspector is a sanitised version and, most of the time, it’s just funny (/multiple-stress-inducing for school staff).

Yet Ofsted's wading into wellbeing has a more sinister side.

I’ve written previously in my column about the impact of Ofsted effectively counting incidents of bullying in school records and refusing to give an "outstanding" label to any school which has recorded above a certain number.

With no legal obligation for schools to note bullying incidents, this has led to an education culture which denies that bullying exists, which believes a paragraph-long anti-bullying policy on a website will suffice to tackle a problem they have, usually, severely underestimated.

Schools can only do so much

I’ve also written previously about the new, more effusive Ofsted wellbeing criteria and how these have been introduced without first putting in place sufficient resources, funding or training for school staff to be able to support children’s wellbeing effectively.

Add to this Sir Antony Seldon’s recent suggestion of wellbeing league tables and it is clear that the future is one in which schools will be measured just as much on their ability to provide pastoral support as they will their academic performance. This has left many campaigners, myself included, scratching their heads and saying, "Erm….that’s not what we meant."

There are multiple flaws in what appears to be a shambolic and ill-thought-out new drive towards improving wellbeing in schools, but the largest is that the idea relies on measuring pupil mental health (as opposed to the resources and strategies put in place to support them).

This will, inevitably, lead to a practice of "hiding away" children with mental or emotional health issues, or to heads insisting that they "don’t have mental health problems, here" – in just the same way as bullying is currently ignored and denied.

Mental ill health is not only inevitable for a certain percentage of the population, it’s also influenced by a multitude of factors over which a school cannot be expected to exert any control. These include economic and family background, genetics, personality type, early trauma, housing and parenting, all of which are factors in a person’s level of mental wellbeing, and all of them fall outside of the jurisdiction of schools.

Pupils could be denied places

Furthermore, with a growing number of schools not controlled by local authorities, my greatest fear is that children with a history of mental illness, or who come from backgrounds which make them vulnerable to future mental health problems, will find it difficult to gain a school place, because their very attendance might adversely affect the school’s Ofsted rating, or place within a league table.

In short, if the agenda is, as was so passionately stated by the Department for Education in the summer of 2015, to reduce stigma around mental health, these initiatives will have absolutely the opposite effect.

Schools are well placed to equip children with basic strategies for universal good mental health (the mental health equivalents of eating well and taking regular exercise). These can be taught through PSHE and practised within the culture of a school.

School staff are also well placed, if appropriately trained, to spot early symptoms of mental illness and respond to pupils who come to them in crisis (by pointing them in the direction of appropriate, qualified support: this must exist for the system to be effective, but that’s a topic for another column).

This is, in my humble opinion, where a school’s responsibility for pupil mental health should end.

Most schools aren’t, in my experience, adequately equipped to do the above in the most effective way possible (although they are trying). Obstacles such as lack of training and support, a non-mandatory PSHE programme and not enough hours in the day stand in their way.

It would be shrewd to focus on getting the above right, rather than handing schools more responsibility than they can handle and measuring them on their performance using flawed criteria.

Asking schools to take full responsibility for the entirety of pupil wellbeing is akin to lobbing them an almighty bath tub. The baby is in there somewhere, but right now all I can see is murky, misguided bath water. 

Natasha Devon is the former UK government mental health champion for schools and founder of the Body Gossip Education Programme and the Self-Esteem Team. She tweets as @NatashaDevonMBE

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