During my nine months as the government’s mental health champion, I consulted with several experts to produce a report on the state of mental wellbeing in schools.
After it became clear that if I simply submitted the report to Department for Education, its fate would probably be to languish in a bin, I decided instead to give it to the Children and Adolescent Mental Health Commission, via the Liberal Democrat's spokesperson for health, Norman Lamb, as well as selected other experts, unions and charities. I also published my key recommendations on my blog.
In one section of the report, I worked with two prominent psychologists to come up with a charter of children’s basic needs. If these needs are consistently met, we all agreed it would be far less likely a child would develop emotional or mental health issues. These needs are as follows:
- Being loved
- Being heard/valued
- Feeling safe
- Having a sense of belonging
- Having a sense of achievement
The potential consequences of not having these needs met, particularly in early childhood, are a lack of attachment and low self-esteem. It is widely accepted that both attachment and a reasonable level of self-esteem are necessary for good mental health.
It’s easy to see how recent changes to the education system might directly impact the fifth need. In fact, statistics collated by a local authority in the West Country found that since the introduction of the new Sats, there had been a 5 per cent decrease in 10- to 11-year-olds' sense of achievement. (The survey included 30,000 participants and with numbers this size any change over 1 per cent should be considered significant).
But what of numbers two and three; being heard/valued and feeling safe?
In my report, I argue that spiralling class sizes might have an impact, here. And while most teachers I talk to passionately believe that class size directly impacts academic performance, the statistical evidence for this is sketchy.
Independent schools, which tend to have class sizes half that of state schools, consistently come top of the league table. However, that could be for any number of reasons.
There are those who vehemently argue that class sizes are of no consequence whatsoever. You will find them on Twitter, bellowing Victorian ideals about "proper" teaching and lamenting the sacking of Michael Gove.
The rules on maximum class sizes are vague, particularly in secondary education. The Labour party proposed a cap of 30 children per classroom in the primary sector, whilst the National Union of Teachers (NUT) recommends no more than 18 for group work.
In my experience, whilst the average class size in state secondary schools tends to be between 30 and 40, classes are often grouped together (particularly when I see them for PSHE), and whilst in an assembly hall with other members of staff present this is usually fine, in a normal classroom having 70 or 80 pupils isn’t really manageable.
It stands to reason that the larger a class size, the more difficult it will be for a child to feel safe, valued and heard.
Despite Britain having one of the worst records in the developed world for converting increases in GDP into public services (we rank in the bottom 20 per cent of the world in converting economic growth into wellbeing) we’re always being told there’s no money for new schools (or that it’s all the fault of the immigrants, depending on which paper you read).
Add to this the fact that we have an epic problem with retaining teachers because of poor working conditions and pay - as well as a general lack of social and political respect - and it doesn’t look like the class size issue is going to be resolved any time soon.
That’s why, in the recommendations that follow my report, I’ve made specific mention of teaching assistants.
When schools are under budget pressures, teaching assistants are often the first to go. They’re also often underpaid despite essentially working full-time hours and often working unpaid overtime.
Teaching assistants bring all kinds of value to a classroom and in terms of mitigating the impact large class sizes can have on the mental health of pupils, their value cannot be overstated. They are able to provide individual attention to children who might otherwise feel unheard, unvalued and unsafe and therefore go on to exhibit symptoms of emotional and mental distress.
So this column is really just a shout out to all the teaching assistants, for all the amazing work you do, so often unrecognised and to reinforce what you already know: that you are making a real difference to the lives of children, in difficult times.
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