Like any job being education secretary involves daily or weekly activities you can’t escape dealing with – internal meetings, budget negotiations and Cabinet meetings. But the real joy and privilege comes in being able to get the dedicated officials in the Department for Education to focus on an issue we all know is important but which never quite gets the attention it deserves.
For me, children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing and character education were such issues. I’ve had a particular interest in mental health since I was first elected in 2010. In 2012 I led the first ever general debate on mental health in the House of Commons chamber which led to a number of my colleagues disclosing their own mental health challenges. We even saw the words “mental health” trending on Twitter that afternoon.
In July 2014 I already knew from my own constituency schools and casework just what an issue it was dealing with Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and why school staff must know where to send a pupil who clearly needs help. In Loughborough I’ve been proud to support a local charity called Worth-it Projects for a number of years now and to be a founding trustee of the Loughborough Wellbeing Café Project.
During my time as secretary of state I was pleased to be able to focus some of our voluntary and community sector funding specifically on mental health, to launch the Mental Health Services and Schools Link single points of contact pilot between schools and clinical commissioning groups, to publish new guidance on school counselling services and to work with the PSHE Association on teaching materials to give schools and teachers the confidence to address issues around mental wellbeing in their classrooms.
I know from my visits to schools up and down the country there are many hundreds of schools who are already focusing on this issue. I remember very clearly a visit to Upton Cross Primary School in Newham who were working with Place2Be on supporting specific children to deal with their emotional needs.
I am delighted to see the Prime Minister and new education secretary Justine Greening announce further measures to support children’s mental health services including mental health first aid training. I look forward to the Green Paper on support for children and young people. The Government had already set aside £1.25bn for children and young people’s mental health services and it is vital that this money gets to the front line and is not diverted. The new mental health dashboard developed by the Health Department will be helpful in checking this happens.
I understand from conversations with the Department of Health and recent parliamentary questions that the pilots I started did work well and are being evaluated. The reply to my recent questions states that some of the emerging practice from the pilots has already been shared through national events. If successful then I hope they can be rapidly extended.
Of course mental wellbeing applies to all of us and it is important we don’t just focus on the point when a serious problem arises but do what we can to keep ourselves mentally healthy in the first place. This is why covering mental wellbeing in PSHE or similar classes is so important.
One of my great regrets about 2016 is that the fallout from the referendum meant that we did not have time to take forward an agreement I had reached with David Cameron that, in July 2016 we would announce moves to make a broad PSHE curriculum statutory. Understandably this couldn't be one of the new Government's immediate priorities. But I believe Justine is keen to make progress with this and I will support her all the way.
Being caught up in the mental health care system is often unexpected and deeply worrying for not only the patient but everyone around them – as I know from family experience. This week’s announcements can be made thanks to many years of hard work by dedicated school staff, campaigners, counsellors and mental health charities and workers. I want to pay tribute to all of them. There is much more to do but this is a very important step along the path to a time when there really is parity of esteem between mental and physical health in our schools.
The Rt Hon Nicky Morgan is MP for Loughborough and a former education secretary