The evolution of pastoral care over the past two decades means the concerns of teachers and school leaders are no longer confined to performance and behaviour in the classroom. We engage at least as much with the emotional welfare of our charges as we do with the educational outcomes they achieve, and rightly so.
We employ counsellors; we train teachers in mental first aid and dealing with issues of children’s mental healthcare. Some schools offer mindfulness classes or more physical activity, or restrict time spent on social media. Pastoral care is now recognised as the bedrock of effective education. It is the nurturing of passionate, caring young adults who can contribute meaningfully to society.
The challenges we face beset all schools. The government acknowledges that the incidence of serious mental health issues in young people has swollen into a tragic number of cases of self-harm, eating disorders, anxiety disorders and depression.
Plans announced in the March Budget (not yet implemented) to spend an extra £250 million a year on therapy, family support, training for clinicians and the development of websites and apps will do little more than respond to the symptoms; nothing addresses the causes.
We must find a way to get to the root of the problem. What we need is a wide-ranging and penetrating analysis of what has changed in our society to bring about this silent epidemic. Until then, we can only indulge in amateur psychology and draw our own conclusions about the cause.
There are several theories: the breakdown of family life means the simple pleasure of time spent with loved ones is unavailable to many young people; children aren’t developing the skills needed to establish and maintain functional relationships; many of the most able judge their own value by their ability not just to do well but to come first; the culture of league tables and the agony of university entrance requirements are adding fuel to the fire of self-loathing; being celebrated for “just being” can be an alien concept.
Those who work with young people have little doubt that the biggest threat to their emotional health comes to them via social media, the internet and instant messages. At my school, our policies seek to protect and we educate our students about the perils of their virtual activities. But we are not there when shocking images flash across the screen or a “ping” announces the arrival of pernicious, vindictive messages. We cannot mitigate the emotional assault or moderate the emotional impact through the power of common sense or the warmth of human interaction.
The lack of up-to-date and rigorous research in this area demonstrates our collective attitude to mental health issues. We are bombarded with numbers that demonstrate attainment in literacy and numeracy and the progress made year on year, yet the silence on the emotional wellbeing of our children is deafening. We are told that they should eat less sugar or fat, that they should live more active lives to avoid the perils of obesity. But the pressures and expectations that clog their spirits rise unchecked.
School leaders are unused to powerlessness when it comes to the care of our charges and we can no longer stand by and do nothing. We have reached the point where we must take steps to do more than apply remedial sticking plasters.
It is time we stood together to demand some meaningful research into the causes of emotional and mental ill health in the young, and some support and guidance on how to make things better.
Sue Freestone is headteacher of King’s Ely in Cambridgeshire