Back in those confusing, conflicted days before the government decided I’d bypassed "useful idiot" and entered the realms of "liability" (days we shall refer to as ‘BF’ – Before Firing), I was invited by the Institute for Public Policy Research to comment on some recommendations it was preparing on schools and wellbeing.
The recommendations, which have since been published, state that schools should be free to design their own system of support for pupils who might be struggling with their mental or emotional health, but that the system should have at its epicentre either counselling or a "hub" (a safe space for children to discuss or exorcise difficult emotions).
Schools should be given funding, resources and training, where appropriate, in order to be able to integrate appropriate support into their pre-existing culture. Finally, the IPPR said, if an expectation was being placed upon schools to provide a certain level of pastoral care and they were receiving public funds in order to do so, it was only right that this should be assessed by an independent body. Enter Ofsted, stage left.
I thought that, in principle, the recommendations were jolly sensible. However, my first and most substantive concern was what could happen if Ofsted began throwing its weight around in the wellbeing arena.
This was not the first time I had heard the idea mooted. In fact, there’s a significant swathe of mental health campaigners who appear to believe that if Ofsted could only give just as much weight to pastoral as it does to academic criteria the mental health crisis would dissolve overnight. Another swathe, which includes myself, believe that going straight to Ofsted before doing a thorough investigation into the issues schools face (the last reliable nationwide stats we have on mental health were collected in 2004) and giving staff significant training and additional funding is, for want of a better phrase, arse about face. Chaos would ensue.
Earlier this year, I conducted an investigation for the Daily Telegraph into the impact of Ofsted on the way schools handle bullying. I interviewed numerous teachers, both anonymously and on the record, and the consensus was that the way Ofsted effectively "counts" incidents of bullying listed in school records makes staff more reluctant to record them. Judging a school on the mere existence of bullying, as opposed to how it deals with it, has led to a trend for heads insisting they "don’t have a bullying problem, here", which is a phenomenon I’ve witnessed first-hand on my travels (usually with the PSHE teacher frantically shaking their head and mouthing "we do" behind the shoulder of said head).
To deny that bullying occurs in a school is daft – unless, of course, yours is a school with one pupil (and even then, arguably, there are times when we are wont to bully ourselves). Basically, every school has a bullying problem to some extent and how open they are to admitting it is often indicative of how good they are at dealing with it.
'Little extra support'
I told the IPPR my nightmare scenario would be an imagined future where schools feel obliged to state "we don’t have mental illness, here". It could potentially undo all the work which has been happening at grass roots to destigmatise mental health, as well as prevent pupils from receiving the care they need.
With disheartening predictability, it appears that the powers that be have decided to bypass recommendations one and two, and skip straight to three: it is predicted that the new Ofsted framework will include more extensive and stringent wellbeing criteria. In the meantime, as far as I’m aware, the only additional support being given to schools to provide more effective care is:
- a pilot scheme whereby child and adolescent mental health services (CAHMS) workers are brought into schools as a point of contact for mental health care; and
- a directive to install peer-to-peer mentoring schemes (which, as the DfE never tired of reminding me, are free).
Both are excellent initiatives but neither are all-encompassing and they’re both potentially fraught with challenges if done incorrectly.
My overarching worry, the thing that keeps me awake at night, the factor which (ironically) played havoc with my own mental health during my time as mental health champion, is that when the government claimed it was working overtime to address concerns around wellbeing in young people, what it really meant was that schools would be. Furthermore, the expectation was that schools would address this without the substantial amounts of support, education and financial investment they’d need to tackle such a momentous task.
Now Ofsted is being brought in to administer an almighty stick where perhaps, at least initially, a carrot was needed.
Natasha Devon is the former 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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