We know that local authority resources are dwindling. Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) are shrinking. As the gaps in provision for children with mental health problems appear, the instinct is to try to fill those gaps ourselves. I’m not sure that it is the right thing to do.
First and foremost, we are educators and we must educate our students as well as we possibly can. That means an unerring focus on improving the quality of teaching. However, our raw material is flesh and bone, not wood and steel. Brilliant teaching is not quite enough on its own.
In September 2016, York launched its School Wellbeing Worker initiative. Each of the city’s six geographical clusters of schools now has a dedicated school wellbeing worker to help “strengthen the emotional and mental health support arrangements for children and young people”. It is an exciting initiative, but a tiny resource.
So, at my school, we have decided that every adult needs to be trained in supporting mental health. This does not mean that every colleague needs to be a professional counsellor, but that we should all be able to have a guided conversation with a student about their feelings. Often, this is all they need.
And if that basic intervention does not help, then we will have a small number of well-trained pastoral staff who, advised by the school wellbeing worker, will provide students with more specialist interventions.
Know your students a little better
If this also proves insufficient, the school wellbeing worker will shape a referral to CAMHS, clear in the knowledge that the school has done all it could to prevent it.
On the one hand, the best form of pastoral care for our students is a good set of examination results. But on the other, we need a culture in which all members of staff are taking small steps to improve children’s mental health.
We need to be more curious. We need to know our students a little bit better. Early-intervention mental health first aid is crucial to prevent problems escalating. We have a physical health and a mental health – being cognizant of that fact is an important step in supporting students.
In 2020, the school wellbeing worker funding will expire. By this point we hope to have built up a resilient culture within our school, in which students have the psychological tools to make sense of this increasingly complex world – and staff the confidence to support them.
And if, by 2020, we have no more need for a school wellbeing worker, this is surely the best possible measure of success for the project.
John Tomsett is headteacher at Huntington School in York and a member of the Headteachers’ Roundtable. He tweets @johntomsett