We’re right to be concerned about our young people’s mental health and wellbeing. Not a day passes without headlines in newspapers, online, on the radio or on TV news – a couple of weeks ago there was an editorial, a journal piece and a front-page report on Yvonne Kelly’s UCL research on teenage mental ill-health. If it were the flu, we’d call it a pandemic. So, what’s to do?
There are three powerful influences affecting the mental health of our youngsters: their families and guardians; their schools and colleges; and social media.
In schools, we have the paraphernalia of parental choice and a faulty admission system that favours pushy parents, a narrow curriculum, high-stakes tests and exams, league tables and punitive Ofsted school inspections, not to mention the daily pressures on poor families.
While this culture reigns, mental health will continue to be a pandemic as many schools “off-roll” or exclude pupils to “play the game”. There are, of course, schools that are exceptions that defy the odds and minimise exclusions. How do they do it?
Here are nine everyday secondary school practices that can help:
1. Focus on the quality of form-time and tutors – these affect all pupil outcomes, especially attendance.
2. Avoid streaming and minimise setting in key stage 3. Research is unambiguous that streaming doesn’t improve academic outcomes. It does, however, worsen behaviour for bottom streams.
3. Ensure that any setting that does take place is organised as fairly as possible, to avoid any hint of streaming.
4. Develop a strong “house” system and involve all teaching and support staff. Link it to tutor groups with competitive team outcomes for attendance, behaviour and agreed extracurricular activities, as well as the academic. Focus pastoral responsibility on house or year leadership.
5. Identify on entry those whom primary schools say are least likely to cope with secondary. The SLT should then “adopt”’ three each and have two conversations a week with them during Year 7.
6. Those staff on break and lunch duty should have four “positive” conversations, with different pupils. If pupils haven’t got a worthwhile relationship with at least one adult, they aren’t really at school.
7. Create a coherent rationale for a “second timetable” to cover the one-off days and weeks when the main timetable is suspended, and include at least one residential experience in it. Make sure the vulnerable take part.
8. Make sure that awards assemblies and evenings celebrate a wide range of contributions and achievements, not just the academic. Don’t ask “how intelligent is this pupil?” but “how is this pupil intelligent?”
9. In the inevitable sanctions system, have as many levels as possible to go through before the ultimate: exclusion. Include “community service in and out of school” as an option before exclusion and involve parents/guardians early.
Sir Tim Brighouse is a former schools commissioner for London. He is the keynote speaker at The Difference’s first annual conference tomorrow. Hosted by Oasis Academy Southbank, it is an opportunity to access CPD from, and build a dialogue with the country’s leading practitioners for supporting the needs of vulnerable pupils. Tes is media partner for the event