The Association of Colleges published a key set of research findings in January around student mental health.
Around 94 per cent of colleges in England had a student attempt suicide in the past year.
The mean number of attempted suicides per college was 12 – with the number of attempts ranging between one and 44 across those colleges that responded.
Just 6 per cent of the 107 colleges surveyed stated that they were aware of no attempted suicides in the past 12 months.
Whether these findings surprise you or not, they are alarming, and bring the student mental health crisis into sharp focus. Further education colleges have been leading the charge on protecting student wellbeing and mental health for some time now: in 2019, the AoC introduced a mental health charter, which currently has 185 colleges signed up to it.
And individually, colleges are introducing different initiatives and programmes to further support students: Milton Keynes College, for example, are looking to offer a level 1 course in managing wellbeing, others have been making use of the mental fitness app Fika.
Need to know: Five ways to support students at risk of suicide
Long read: Do we all need training in mental fitness?
But could the sector be going even further? Should mental health provision be funded by the government, and should mental health and fitness be embedded into the curriculum in the same way, say GCSE maths and English is, or how vocational skills are? And if so, how could it be done, and what barriers do colleges need to overcome? College leaders came together at a roundtable, hosted by the qualification provider NCFE in collaboration with Fika, to dicsuss.
First of all, mental health and fitness need to be identified as core skills, and colleges need to be able to provide courses to manage wellbeing, says Liz Bromley, chief executive of NCG.
“At NCG, another part of the package we offer as part of the curriculum, but almost as a co-curriculum, which is where students learn those soft skills that make them able to engage, make them community aware and good citizens, make them employable, things around teamwork and good communications and timekeeping, writing skills and all those sorts of things, and in their mental health and wellbeing, resilience, confidence – the things that will enable them to do so much better,’ she says.
“What I think we can do is recontextualise our education so that mental health and wellbeing is part of the narrative."
Mental health provision: the case for dedicated funding
But for colleges to really act on this, the funding awarded to higher education, (£15m for student hardship was announced in April), should be matched in FE, she says.
“If you put all of the contextual disadvantages that FE students may bring with them, and you put that alongside this national levelling up agenda where the great outputs of our FE curriculum and skills provision should be recognised and respected alongside HE, I would put onto the table that if there's £15 million worth of hardship funding available for HE students, it may be that kind of investment in our FE students, taking away either the causes of mental health and anxiety, or actually ring-fencing the funds to look at the causes of those anxieties and then the amelioration of them, is a reasonable ask at this current time,” she says.
Richard Caulfield, mental health lead for the Association of Colleges, says the sector needs to find the ‘sweet spot’ between education and health funding.
“When funding comes from health, they have a whole heap of health outcomes they want from it, and when it comes to education, we have a whole heap of education outcomes. Where's the sweet spot there?” he says. “We all know, if students succeed at college, it’s more likely to lead them to have a healthier, more fruitful life, their mental health will be good if they're going into good work.”
Beech agrees, and says in the same way the government is using funding as an incentive for businesses to provide T level placements, funds should be attached to measurable outcomes in mental health.
“Realistically, the government will only fund something that is measurable and is going to have the impact that they desire,” he says. “I wonder if that might be a pressure point that we could work on. There are lots of papers that talk about funding transition, which is incredibly important because the identity of individuals is inextricably linked to mental health. You might argue that having a positive outcome, passing your course, having a successful placement, all of those build your confidence. We need to have that space where we can really measure very specific outcomes, and get some capacity funding in place.”
The barriers to embedding mental health
Clearly, funding is one barrier: but leaders are dealing with other challenges, too.
Amy Langford, head of inclusion at Milton Keynes College, says often where colleges have big student support departments, there can be a feeling that it’s just up to them to deal with mental health and wellbeing.
"There is the potential that staff across groups can see it as a responsibility of one group of people to have accountability for this, to be the champions of it. A lot of the work we've been doing in awareness-raising among staff, and equally addressing the mental fitness of staff, is that it’s a bit like safeguarding in that it’s everybody's business,” she says. “It’s about the language, and encouraging those open conversations and devolving it from being just a support teams’ consideration.”
Bromley says the culture and attitude of some in FE is a huge challenge to overcome.
“The two biggest barriers that I've seen in FE, in this awareness and ability to embed mental health and fitness training within the curriculum, is the culture and the attitude,” she says. “There is a diffidence in FE, that we don't have the time, we don't have the money, and we're not really allowed to deviate from the things that we're funded for.”
So what needs to change? What can be done in policy to support mental fitness to be part of the core curriculum in FE?
Bromley says colleges need autonomy to use funding how they see fit – and hopes the news skills bill will allow that.
“If the FE White Paper enables more autonomy through funding changes that have been mooted, then we have the ability within FE to take the same approach as HE: to say these things matter, they matter to our students, they matter to our staff, we do have the time, we will find the money, and we will create the space,” she says.
Caulfield says the government needs to have a better understanding of colleges, and the communities they serve.
“If we had someone from the government speaking, they’d be talking about their investment in mental health support teams in schools and colleges, and it's great and where the investment is there, it's pretty good, and going quite well,” he says.
“However, they still need to have a specialist focus when they're looking at colleges. There's no other type of educational institution that's got the breadth of student body that we have in colleges, from those HE learners through to our high-needs learners, our 14 to 16-year-olds who are in some colleges.
"The breadth is enormous, and therefore we need to have a specific whole-college approach and that needs to be supported in the way that [the government] throws money at HE and sometimes at schools. We need an FE focus.”