A whole school approach to mental health - RSA

A whole school approach to mental health

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  • Picture of Tom Harrison
    Tom Harrison
    Assistant Researcher, Public Services and Communities
  • Schools
  • Mental health

Effectively supporting mental health in schools has been a key focus for government in recent years, leading to the adoption and trialling of a range of approaches by different organisations and education providers. Our research shows that is it often not just teachers that provide support to young people in a school-setting, but also support staff and peers, underlining the importance of taking a whole-school approach to ensure every child is effectively supported.

Between July 2017 and September 2018, The RSA and RSA Academies provided a programme of mental health awareness training across seven schools. Six RSA Academies (one first school, two middle schools and three secondaries), and one non-RSA junior schooltook part in the project. All the schools are based in the West Midlands and serve areas of multiple-disadvantage. Today marks the launch of our findings from the project, which aimed to embed mentally-healthy cultures, policies and practices within the schools.

The report highlights the importance of training non-teaching staff in mental health awareness training and reflects insights from surveys of staff and pupils as well as 21 in-depth focus groups conducted with senior leaders, staff and pupils. Supported by our evaluation partners, The Anna Freud Centre, we sought to measure the impact of the mental health training in schools on:

  • staff confidence in talking about and dealing with mental ill health;
  • staff mental health awareness and literacy
  • staff perceptions of the school as a supportive environment, and
  • “supportive behaviours” among staff.

Statistically significant positive changes were found in all four domains, among all groups of staff (leaders, pastoral, teaching and non-teaching) in all schools (primary and secondary).

Staff reported a 52% increase in “supportive behaviours”, which encompasses talking and listening to pupils, providing practical support and signposting/referring on to services. Many attributed this change directly to the training they received. There was also an average 13% increase in staff confidence, staff awareness and literacy, and in perceptions  of the school as a supportive environment.

Read the report

Why a whole school approach? 5 areas to focus action

There has been a lot of talk about whole school approaches to mental health. The latest Green Paper Transforming Young People’s Mental Health Provision outlined an ambition to develop a “whole school approach” to mental health in schools, which included a commitment to mental health awareness training for teachers, supported by a training package of up to £95 million from 2019. Alongside this, information and practical advice to support mental health for pupils was will be made compulsory by 2020 with a change to PSHE curriculum.

This extends beyond government, too. In its “School wellbeing framework for teachers”, the National Children’s Bureau advocates for teachers “develop a supportive school and classroom climate and ethos which builds a sense of connectedness, focus and purpose, the acceptance of emotion and vulnerability, warm relationships and the celebration of difference”. Our report launched today reflects these principles and extends them, proposing that these should apply to all adults working in schools.

While these developments are of course welcome, school leaders, staff and pupils highlighted concerns in areas that have yet to be identified in government guidelines. Indeed, our evidence suggests recent government announcements to establish ‘designated senior leads for mental health’ in 20% of schools by 2022 is unlikely to be sufficient if they do not confront five key issues:

  1. A lack of specialised support services;
  2. A more pressurised school environment, linked to high-stakes exams 
  3. The impact of social media and cyberbullying;
  4. Violence and risk of violence outside of school, and
  5. Self-harm.


Our findings demonstrate that training teaching and non-teaching staff alike is one way to effectively develop a whole-school approach to mental health and by establishing joint policies and practices to sit alongside, we have been able to consolidate the confidence and increased literacy in mental health issues to witnesses significant improvement. These improvements, importantly, are driven by the staff, and allowed to succeed by good school leadership but depend on collaboration across schools, which we hope will continue.

Launched in January 2017, the same month that the West Midlands Mental Health Commission recommended adoption for whole-school approaches across the region, this RSA and RSA Academies partnership will aim to deepen their respective commitments to working across schools and beyond the Umbrella Trust to scale the impact of the project.

Read the full report: A whole school approach to mental health.

Find out more about our whole school mental health project.

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  • It's so important to build a common awareness of the adverse experiences of children so that true collaboration across all agencies and communities can be promoted. Currently I am active in working with UK supporters of the Adverse Child Experiences (ACES) Connection network which has a big profile in the USA. Last September 2500 people attended the ACE-Aware National Conference in Scotland and we are planning a Greater London conference in 2019. So I am reaching out to Fellows and to our Mental Health in Schools team which is doing great work. Can we talk about working together in order to plan and promote the conference? Looking forward to your responses and to the prospect of making headway in the near future!

  • This is a worthwhile work and very timely indeed! Its impact will go beyond schools and may even help in the small matter of integration of those new Britons who were born overseas.

    One of the shocking discoveries I made as a young law student many years ago, was how disproportionate the number of ethnic minorities with mental health issues were in prisons. The research at the time suggested that part of the problem was a lack of support at school, thus leading many to feel alienated and disenfranchised as adults. With society getting ever more complex, a wholistic approach alluded to above will go a long way to helping young people cope with a rapidly changing world regardless of race, colour, or social status. This endeavour is long overdue; but better late than never. Thank you.

  • Thanks Tom, this is timely research in to a complex, highly challenging area for the school education sector. The project also demonstrates the willingness of the RSAA to 'get it's hands dirty' in exploring different, and potentially scale-able responses. As the Chair of Trustees at one of the RSAA's secondary schools, I welcome and applaud that!

  • It is good to see the RSA contributing its expertise to the children's health and wellbeing challenge. Our social enterprise, Evolve: A Social Impact Company, has been dedicated to this very topic while working in schools for twelve years now. We have been fortunate enough to have won many awards along the way for our innovative, upstream and holistic programme - Project HERO (Health Engagement Real Outcomes).

    Our two most recent awards are the Health and Wellbeing Awards from the Royal Society for Public Health, who have granted us "Partner" status, and UnLtd, who have awarded Evolve one of only four places on their "Pioneers" programmes for social enterprises that whose work, if scaled up could impact on national statistic.

    Independent research, along with our internal impact reporting, has produced some very positive results in terms of improved attendance, behaviour and school performance by pupils. In fact we have been approached by Dr Michael Merzenich, the global leading neuroplasticity expert to join forces to "change the fate of children" to use his own words.

    I would hope that relevant members of the RSA could meet with Evolve to discuss how togeter we might add more strength to the challenge to improve the health and wellbeing of the next generation. The HERO programme is totally unique - but is starting to be imitated. We combine physical activity, emotional wellbeing through pupil mentoring and personal development to provide a platform for cognitive brain training.

    I do hope we can mve things forward in this crisis area.

    Graham Morgan MSc, BEd.

    Fellow RSA

    Fellow RSPH

    Goldman Sachs 10,000 small busnesses alumni