‘In the Dark Ages of Austerity schools are being asked to absorb all of society’s problems’

24th May 2016 at 13:02
Childhood mental health
And then they’re not even consulted about what should really happen – especially in the area of children’s mental health, writes the Department for Education's former mental health champion

Last week, I was casually browsing Metro on the Tube when I saw one of those headlines that makes you pinch yourself to check your train hasn’t accidentally passed through a vortex masquerading as a tunnel and emerged into a parallel universe (which happens more often than you might think when perusing British press offerings). According to the article, a government-led proposal has suggested that, in order to reduce gang and violence-related incidents among teenagers, teachers should patrol local bus stops.

Yes, you read that right. Teachers, already juggling their responsibilities towards children’s social, mental and physical wellbeing, in addition to negotiating mountains of paperwork, relentless box-ticking, marking and, occasionally (when their schedules allow), actually teaching, would, if this new bright idea ever comes to pass, additionally be expected to become part-time community support officers.

I think I speak on behalf of every thinking human when I say this monumentally extracts the proverbial urine. But it’s also emblematic of a wider trend which has been creeping up on the education sector since David Cameron declared we were all in this together and the Dark Ages of Austerity began.

Increasingly, schools are being expected to absorb. When social services are cut, schools absorb the consequences, attempting to meet the needs of children who come from troubled homes. The Queen’s speech revealed the government’s intentions to make schools responsible for excluded pupils.

When child and adolescent mental health services are cut, teachers support young people with serious mental health issues because there is nowhere to refer them to. And now, following extensive cuts to the police service, teachers are being handed the responsibility for antisocial behaviour in their communities. Next, the government will be asking teachers to strap on a hose on their way into work and pop out to tackle any house fires in the vicinity.

'Don't worry – teachers can do everything'

It’s becoming clear that the government sees schools as a cheap alternative to vital public sector services it can’t be arsed to fund any more. “Don’t worry, teachers can do that. Why not? It’s not like they have anything else to do,” might as well be the Tory party slogan.

A few of you might be reading this thinking, ‘"Don’t you help teachers provide mental health care in schools, which is also not technically part of their job spec?" And the answer is yes. However, it’s also worth noting that if everything I wanted to happen socially, economically and within education and health came to pass I would be out of a job. And I wouldn’t mind because: a) children and young people would be happier and better cared for; and b) if those things have happened it’s probably because I’ve been given the job of Queen of Everything, which will take up quite a lot of my time.

Now, it would be remiss of me not to reiterate that I passionately believe wellbeing and mental health should be at the centre of everything we do, including education. Yet I also understand that such a vision requires a fundamental restructuring of schools and the curriculum as we know them and that sort of renovation requires time, thought, expertise and, perhaps most crucially, money.

All of which is why I was beside myself with delight when I read the latest recommendations from the Institute for Public Policy Research on children and young people’s mental health. The IPPR has recognised that schools are an environment where symptoms of poor mental health can be identified and where a certain level of support can be provided. However, it has also recognised that this is impossible without significant external support and finance.

Here comes the brilliant bit: when last year local authorities prepared their "transformation plans" and applied for government funding to improve mental health in their area, as a general rule schools were not consulted. The IPPR has declared this utterly daft and has therefore recommended that, when the next chunk of dosh becomes available, a proportion is given to schools to design their own system of support for their pupils, based on their needs. It has also recommended that schools identify a "beacon school" in their area that is already offering excellent mental health support for pupils and work with this school to replicate it, meaning that schools exhibiting good practice will be rewarded with funding in order to provide training for other schools in their area.

It is a sign of the times that such completely sensible and achievable strategies sounded, to my mind’s ear, as I typed them, like a utopian dream. But it’s good to know that at least one organisation out there has recognised that while money can’t buy you happiness or love, it can – when spent wisely – provide better, more cohesive communities.

Natasha Devon was the Department for Education’s mental health champion until three weeks ago and tweets at @NatashaDevonMBE

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