What theme is sufficiently important to pull together some 200 independent school heads with a group of maintained school partners for a national day conference devoted to a single issue? Exam reform? No. Forced academisation? Hardly.
It was, of course, mental health. The issue is gradually occupying centre stage in schools' thinking and the fact that major independent schools' association the HMC called and filled a conference at the British Library in central London on Thursday illustrates its current prominence.
Such a conference is not without risk to the sector. When the HMC first ran a session on mental health at its annual conference last October, newspaper headlines were tiresomely predictable. "Private schools face mental health crisis" was the general tenor: reporting was unhelpful and, some feared, potentially damaging. But the sector held its nerve, trusting that the conversation is now becoming more grown-up. It is – and Thursday's conference proved it.
No longer is the topic greeted by the wringing of hands, nor by a helpless "What can we do about it?" There wasn’t even a complaint that, once again, schools are being left to solve a major societal problem – though, as always, there's some truth in that.
On the contrary, the power of schools working together with forceful advocates such as the Department for Education’s mental health champion Natasha Devon (a fellow TES columnist), who opened the conference, may encourage government and policymakers to sit up and listen. One maintained-sector colleague asked, "Where is all that funding that we keep hearing about? When will we see it?" In reply, Natasha Devon made it clear that she won't stop pushing Westminster until the resources are put in place. I hope that commitment isn’t fruitless.
The focus of the day was very much on solutions. Well, not solutions exactly: we cannot solve the whole problem in one go. But schools can learn from one another (as we did at the conference), share good practice and help equip children to face the indisputable challenges to their mental wellbeing, threats and pressures that no previous younger generation has faced to the same degree.
'No quick solutions'
We can’t pretend to find all the answers at such conferences: the problem is far too big and complex for any such glib claims. But it succeeded in moving the debate on significantly and certainly left school heads feeling less helpless and more empowered to address the problems they encounter in their own schools.
Confidence plays an enormous part in all of this. Schools need to make teachers and pupils more confident, competent and articulate in talking about the issues and dealing with them: hence the way in which the concept of “mental health first aid” is coming to the fore, better equipping both teachers and pupils for coping with situations.
There was, however, the usual elephant in the room, lurking in every corner of the conference space, not just visible but trumpeting. Speakers were too polite to dwell on the central problem that schools’ efforts are not sufficiently supported or complemented by public services. Children can wait for up to three months for a routine child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) appointment, and emergency cases (for example, suicidal thoughts) still take two weeks. Schools are trying to fill the gaps through their own counselling support, which parents sometimes demand in frustration at waiting times: but we cannot provide the same level of medical support.
Heads described social services in some parts pushing a reported problem back to them, because the professionals had no resource to deal with it. Then there are the bizarre variations in local rules that mean that in one local authority area a 15-year-old may self-refer (without their parents), while in another they are prevented. Inequity and inadequacy of provision is widespread, and schools are neither equipped nor qualified to take on the specialist therapeutic role that is too often asked of them.
We can't do it alone, and we await an adequate response from government.
Nonetheless, schools are buckling down as they always do, and delegates left the conference feeling that they were closer to finding at least some solutions, for the benefit of all the pupils in all their schools. What will we see government, central and local, offer to match their efforts?
Dr Bernard Trafford is headteacher of Royal Grammar School, Newcastle upon Tyne, and a former chairman of the HMC. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets at @bernardtrafford
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