Ofsted's framework: what it means for pupil mental health

The inspectorate's move away from data and new 'personal development' category are both steps in the right direction for children's mental wellbeing, writes Dr Tara Porter

Mental health, Tara Porter, Dr Tara Porter, Ofsted, Ofsted's new framework

 

Ofsted’s new inspection framework was published this month – this, I’m sure, won't be news to regular Tes readers.

The inspectorate will still inspect four areas of the school, but there’s been a change in what, exactly, those areas are. Perhaps the least changed is “leadership and management”, which remains largely the same. In contrast, the “outcomes for pupils” category has completely gone.  

What was “teaching, learning and assessment” has morphed into “quality of education”, and “personal development, behaviour and welfare” has now been split into two separate categories: “behaviour and attitudes” and “personal development”. This last change proved particularly popular during the consultation, with eight out of 10 respondents approving of this change.

Those interested in education pedagogy find plenty to chew over in the meaning of “quality of education”, and debate is already raging about whether or not Ofsted is privileging a knowledge-based curriculum, or has over-relied on cognitive-load theory in developing the framework. Sceptics are wondering how, as we move away from a reliance on data, inspectors will make the nuanced judgements.

But let’s move away from education theory for a moment and ask: what do these changes mean in terms of child and adolescent mental health? And will they have any impact on the so-called “mental health crisis” that is plaguing this generation of young people?

From a mental health perspective, I find much to applaud about the changes in the framework.

The consultation  

I’m so pleased that the consultation specifically involved the mental health charity YoungMinds – with 4,000 responses sent through to Ofsted as a result of its campaign. There is little detail on who these respondents were (teachers? Parents? Mental health workers?) But given the current worries about our young people’s mental health, it’s an important indication that this was being considered.

The move away from data

The push towards outcomes has meant that schools are judged on narrow criteria, and a year group with a slower pace can result in a school “plunging” down the league tables.

Teachers are only too aware of this, but it’s inevitable that in a culture of relentless comparison, they want their school to do well, as well as wanting each child to achieve their potential. If teachers are worried about outcomes, that will be reflected in the weight of importance that Sats are given in schools.

When presenting the framework this week, chief inspector Amanda Spielman said that schools should avoid inadvertently ratcheting up the stress for Year 6 Sats, and I think she is entirely right. Anxiety is contagious. While schools mean well, getting other children in the school to make good-luck messages for the Year 6s, giving them special snacks and drinks, putting on Sats-preparation classes, extra books and sending letters home about Sats week sends kids the message that "this is really important, I’d better get it right".

Year 6 children pick up on this anxiety, and the stories I heard during Sats week reflect that – tales of tears, sleepless nights and the belief that “If I don’t do well in my Sats, I’m not going to get a good job”. 

Some say that stress prepares children for the real world, that it develops resilience and gets them used to tests and exams in preparation for their GCSEs and A levels.  

This is certainly not my experience in child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS). What I’ve observed from working therapeutically with young people is that each exam taken and passed – even if passed with an A* or grade 9 – is subsequently dismissed by them as irrelevant. They think the next exam is always more important.  

By the time formal exams occur in Year 11 and 13, our patients/your pupils are at the pinnacle of pressure and stress. They think all those tests and exams they’ve taken over the years will count for nothing if they don’t get an A* in this one. Their previous successes don’t provide confidence – they set a ridiculously high benchmark for themselves, against which they must succeed.

This narrative has changed beyond measure in my 20 years in CAMHS. I rarely used to talk about exams in therapy with young people. In May and June, I have rarely talked about anything else.

Of course, the pressure to succeed has more complicated roots than the subliminal messages schools give their pupils, or that the inspection framework gives to teachers. Parents are also a factor, as is our globalised consumer society. We live in a 24/7 visual culture; our young people experience more advertising than ever before, and that feeds into the expectations they have for themselves.

There are nature and nurture factors at play in any child’s susceptibility to experiencing anxiety. However, I welcome the move away from data and outcomes and hope that, while wanting every child to succeed, success can come from a broad definition of education.

Personal development

The third change I welcome is perhaps not surprising considering I work in CAMHS. The introduction of a standalone category of “personal development” gets a big cheer from me, in thinking about children and young people’s mental health. It’s music to my ears to hear that the “curriculum extends beyond the academic, technical or vocational. It provides for learners’ broader development, enabling them to develop and discover their interests and talents” and “helps them know how to keep physically and mentally healthy”.

We know a lot about mental health at this point – but our knowledge base is far from complete. We know that mental health is correlated with poverty. Therefore, we must ensure that every child receives the education that will help to lead them to economic independence. Academic success is a factor in this – but it’s just that, one factor.

Being mentally healthy means having a balanced life, avoiding addiction, being involved in activities that completely absorb you and make you happy, exercising, maintaining meaningful, supportive relationships and having good sleep habits.  

Giving children the opportunities to discover their passions alongside education is an investment in their future mental health (and rather more prosaically, their likelihood of being a productive citizen).

Finding a sport or form of exercise that they will pursue for the rest of their lives will have incalculable benefits in their mental and physical health, and reduce the burden on the NHS. Exercise is the single most important factor in warding off depression.

Ensure that form teachers have time to discuss, coach and advise on friendship issues and conflicts. Teachers modelling calm and consistent behaviour can be crucial if a child lacks other adult role models. 

Good mental health comes from a good work-life balance, and mental health problems result when we overinvest in one area at the expense of the other. Children who avoid all work are at risk of long-term poverty, which can manifest in all manners of mental and physical health problems. At the other end of the scale, there are young people who work all the time, striving for those top grades at any cost, who are at risk of mental burnout.

I think the Ofsted inspection framework now offers opportunities for schools to help pupils at both ends of the spectrum. A broad and rich curriculum with a focus on education will allow schools to engage the work-shy, while a personal development emphasis will encourage others to broaden their interests beyond their studies.

Time will tell, but I feel optimistic that this is a step in the right direction for children and young people’s mental health.

Dr Tara Porter is a clinical psychologist at the Royal Free London NHS Trust and Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, as well as Tes' mental health columnist. Views expressed are her own

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