It’s starting to be accepted that wellbeing and good mental health should be a strategic priority embedded into the culture and ethos of every school. But are things moving fast enough?
Research evidence is clear about both the negative impact that poor mental health has on children’s learning and the positive contribution that a well-coordinated whole school approach can make.
One well-conducted review in the US summarised research on 207 social and emotional interventions, and suggested that schools with effective wellbeing programmes showed an 11 per cent improvement in achievement tests, a 25 per cent improvement in social and emotional skills, and a 10 per cent decrease in classroom misbehaviour, anxiety and depression.
In this context, Ofsted recently launched the new Schools Inspection Framework. Reducing the focus on exam performance, and the separation of ‘behaviours and attitudes’ and ‘personal development’ have been broadly welcomed as helping to improve mental health and value the contribution of all children.
However, we know that schools that involve the whole school community in developing a culture of wellbeing see the greatest benefits for children, young people and staff. So it was disappointing to see that despite recognising these benefits, Ofsted did not include or recommend a whole school approach to mental health and wellbeing within its inspection framework, nor incentivise or recognise schools for implementing this way of working.
There is some hope that this was less a rejection of the benefits of the approach and more an implementation issue. After all, you can’t start marking schools down for not doing something that takes effort and time to implement if you haven’t given fair warning that this is your intention.
Ofsted would be out of step with other developments if this wasn’t their longer term plan. New commitments to improving mental health and wellbeing support for children and young people in schools bring us closer to having the support our pupils deserve in place.
National initiatives such as the Government’s ‘Transforming children and young people’s mental health provision’ could, with its emphasis on prevention and early intervention at school, mark an important milestone in how children access mental health support. Similarly, the statutory Relationships and Sex Education and Health Education and the NHS Long-term plan all aim to significantly improve the understanding of mental health issues and access to support.
The convergence of these initiatives provides both opportunities and challenges for schools on the frontline of this change agenda. For example, the role of the Designated Senior Lead and Mental Health Support teams must eventually form part of a whole school approach. How do we support schools to take this forward?
For a start we need to get better at learning from other schools that are leading the way. Staff from the National Children’s Bureau were recently lucky enough to visit a London school that has gone from being in special measures to good / outstanding in some areas within three years, largely by re-focusing the school’s central aim as promoting wellbeing. The transformation involved using limited resources to recruit a full-time, fully trained child counsellor to focus solely on pupils’ wellbeing with no other teaching responsibilities. You can read more about Lessness Heath’s extraordinary journey here.
To help schools learn from each other, the Partnership for Wellbeing and Mental Health in Schools has launched a national online Schools Forum, which provides a platform for schools and education providers to share practice and learning examples as they develop whole school approaches to improving mental health and emotional wellbeing for pupils.
The Schools Forum will help to create an evidence base of what works, driving and inspiring change so schools can create an enriching educational environment that is conducive to a good level of mental health and wellbeing support for every pupil.
We want all schools to sign up, regardless of where they are in the journey, to learn from, encourage and support each other to develop and embed your own whole school approach.
We think school leaders are best placed to support other school leaders in implementing this vital change in how we support children and young people’s mental health. We hope others will join our growing community so many more schools are ready when Ofsted catches up.
Amanda Allard coordinates the Partnership for Wellbeing and Mental Health in Schools, part of the National Children’s Bureau.
- Apply to join the Partnership Schools Forum here.
- The Partnership for Wellbeing and Mental Health in Schools has produced a range of resources to help schools including a self-assessment and improvement framework for establishing a whole school approach to wellbeing and mental health. Find out more on our website.