For many young people and families across the UK, schools offered more than just education through the pandemic. According to Jaime Smith, director of mental health and wellbeing in schools at the Anna Freud Centre, they provided “a place of safety and stability” for young people and families, becoming “anchors for the community".
“Evidence tells us that young people who are living in poverty, LGBTQ+ young people, black and minoritised young people, girls [and] young women have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, and they're all bringing that to school,” says Smith. “So schools are carrying that extra emotional load."
Before working at the Anna Freud Centre, a charity that supports young people and their families with mental health, Smith worked as a secondary school teacher in central London. She recognises the burden that the pandemic has placed on school staff.
Listen to the full interview on the Tes podcast:
“The pandemic has brought with it enormous challenges for the education system. I think it's also important just to stop and reflect for a moment and just think about what schools have dealt with for the last 18 months," she says.
Mental health: Prioritising staff wellbeing in schools
“It's important to say that schools never closed. Teachers [and] school leaders were open throughout, and they were prioritising children. They were really being that place of safety and stability and routine and actually being an anchor for communities and keeping children and families going."
Speaking to Tes ahead of her keynote speech at this year’s E-ACT Ideas Conference, Smith says the Department for Education's new Education Staff Wellbeing Charter is a step in the right direction, but thinks the sector has a long way to go when it comes to staff mental health.
Listen to part 1: Willem Kuyken: what works when it comes to wellbeing?
"I think that one of the barriers that we see often is that teachers still feel reticent to have those conversations," says Smith.
"Fifty-seven per cent of staff still say they didn't want to talk to their employer about their stress levels or about their wellbeing. So we need to do something about shifting that culture and opening the conversations."
"I really hope lots of schools sign up [to the Wellbeing Charter] in September. I hope that schoolssee it as something that they can pick up, share with [their] community [and] tell their parents and carers that it's a foundation for them – prioritising staff wellbeing."
Jaime Smith will be speaking at the E-ACT Ideas Conference: Mental Health in Schools – Where Next?, in partnership with Tes, on 7 October 2021. Find out more and register for free