It’s right to be concerned about mental health and wellbeing, especially when it comes to our pupils.
Not a day passes without reminders in newspapers, radio and TV news and online (within two days last week there was a leader, a journal piece and a front-page report on Yvonne Kelly’s UCL research on teenage mental health).
If it were the flu we would call it a pandemic. So, what’s to do?
Each day there are three powerful influences affecting the mental health of our youngsters: their families and guardians; their schools and colleges; and social media – a recent and powerful newcomer to the challenges of navigating childhood and adolescence successfully.
Tomorrow’s Include Ed conference, at which we’ll hear from teachers and schools committed to sharing good practice and promoting better leadership both there and in alternative provision, is therefore timely.
Some argue that until we change systemic structures that feed the paraphernalia of parental choice and a faulty admission system – which 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 – we can make little real progress in schools.
Certainly, they all contribute to schools being more exclusive places. Although defenders of the system will say that they are unintended outcomes of reforms to raise standards of pupil outcomes – collateral damage if you like.
Before getting on my moral high horse, it’s perhaps salutary to admit to my own experience of unintended outcomes and collateral damage.
In 1982 I was in my third year as a CEO and was uncomfortable with the amount of corporal punishment in 48 Oxfordshire secondary schools.
I knew it was pointless raising the issue with the council (61 conservatives, three labour and five others). At a time when they led the way in cutting schools’ expenditure, I’m sure that they would have asked me: “how many more canes do you need?”.
So I devised a cunning plan. I surveyed the schools and sent the results in confidence to all the heads showing their results compared with others. It was illuminating: some had abolished caning altogether; others used it sparingly but one accounted for a third of all canings.
A year later the survey revealed all had decided to abolish it. I can remember feeling quite pleased with myself, especially when the government, reluctantly complying with an EU directive, abolished it a couple of years later. “No problem,” I said to my furious councillors. “None of our secondary schools use it anyway. I have surveyed them to find out.”
Hubris – and then nemesis. As one head wryly and prophetically told me: “Just watch the exclusions rocket.” We all know that more than half the prison population have experienced school exclusion. Of course, it’s more complicated than that.
In those far off days, boys – it was then almost entirely boys who couldn’t or wouldn’t manage the full gamut of academic subjects – pursued from Year 10 a whole smorgasbord of practical (sometimes vocational) alternatives. This included for those unable to cope with full-on lessons, “calming time” helping in the school garden. Most secondary schools had their garden.
The 1988 Education Act changed all that by imposing a “broad and balanced” curriculum bearing a striking resemblance, technology apart, to that of universities in Victorian times. Gradually, schools, realising pupil resistance to such a diet and the rise in exclusions which my wise Oxfordshire head had predicted, widened choice to a whole range of BTECs and other "GCSE-equivalents".
The government decided to design vocational GCSEs. Then, after the 2010 election, from stage right, came Michael Gove and Nick Gibb – Gradgrind and Choakamchild in the flesh. Ebacc reigns, a King James Bible was given to all schools and children were tested on entry to schools. Mental health became a pandemic as many schools "off-roll" or exclude pupils.
There are, of course, exceptions which defy the odds and minimise exclusions. How do they do it?
Here are nine everyday secondary school practices which help (or hinder?) exclusions:
Focus on the quality of form-time and tutors – it affects all pupil outcomes especially attendance.
Avoid streaming and minimise setting in key stage 3. Research is unambiguous that streaming doesn’t improve academic outcomes but does worsen behaviour for bottom streams.
Ensure that any setting that does take place is organised as fairly as possible to avoid any hint of streaming.
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 extra-curricular activities as well as the academic. Focus pastoral responsibility on house or year leadership.
Identify on entry those whom primary schools say are least likely to cope with secondary school. The SLT should adopt three each and have two conversations a week with them in the corridors at break and lunch time.
Staff on break and lunch duty should have four "positive" conversations with different pupils each time. If pupils haven’t got a worthwhile relationship with at least one adult they aren’t really at school.
Create a coherent rationale for a "second timetable" to cover the one-off days and weeks when the main timetable is suspended: include at least one residential experience in it. Make sure the vulnerable take part.
Make sure awards assemblies and evenings celebrate a wide range of contributions and achievements, not just the academic. Instead of asking, how intelligent is this pupil, ask how is this pupil intelligent?
When it comes to the sanctions system have as many levels as possible before it gets to the ultimate "exclusion". Include "community service in and out of school" as an option before exclusion and involve parents and guardians early.
And it’s always worth remembering the recommendations made in the Elton (1989) and Steer (2009) reports about alternative and supplementary provisions. They may have been long forgotten by central government, but successful and inclusive schools prove they were right to focus on high-quality teaching and CPD.
Sir Tim Brighouse 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 its media partner