Is it a matter of exceptional forward planning or unfortunate irony that this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, on stress, no less, should coincide with SATs and the first main week of GCSE and A level examinations?
As the Mental Health Foundation explain, stress is a major factor in the mental health difficulties that many people experience during their lifetimes and therefore by tackling stress we can go a long way to tackle mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, and, in some instances self-harm and suicide. For our 11 year olds and teenagers there can be few more stressful weeks than this one!
We know that reported mental health difficulties and referrals to external agencies are on the rise amongst children and young people too. And whilst schools neither can nor should be expected to fill in the gaps left by cuts to specialist services, they have a central role to play in providing preventative and early intervention services to children and young people. This is why for the last year RSA Academies has been working with support from the Pears Foundation on a new project, a Comprehensive Approach to Mental Health in Schools, which sees all adults working in a school gaining some level of training in identifying and providing first line support to children who are struggling with issues such as anxiety, depression and so on. We want to better understand the drivers of mental ill health – and it would be almost perverse to argue that the high stakes exams system does not play a part for both children and teachers – and find out what schools can do to best make a difference.
The evaluation of this important project will be taking place over the next few weeks. The Anna Freud Centre will be circulating over 2,000 surveys to children and teachers to assess just how much difference staff participation in this project has made, and we will be undertaking focus groups with both adults and children to add qualitative information to the data.
We will use this to pull together a report and pack of resources to help other schools to introduce similar approaches, which will be launched in the Autumn Term.
Four points have already become clear.
Firstly, it is unhelpful to look at children’s mental health and well-being in isolation from other issues in the school. To make a real difference to the culture you need to take a whole school approach, recognising the mental health needs of the adults in school as well as the children. Without this work to support teachers, children’s mental health simply becomes another thing that over-stretched staff are asked to do and struggle with, potentially adding to their own anxiety.
Secondly, there is something very powerful about all staff going through training as a group, particularly when this is overtly responding to an issue where teachers and other staff have indicated that they would welcome support. Taking this approach also makes it easier to interweave discussion and strategies for supporting children’s mental health with strategies for supporting colleagues.
Thirdly, co-designing the programme with individual schools is important. Our initial plan had been to roll out exactly the same programme of training with each of the eight schools. It quickly became clear, however, that even amongst the group of schools we work with as part of the RSA Family of Academies schools varied enormously in terms of their starting points. Therefore, whilst we have had a strong common core to the training provided, we have allowed schools some flexibility over the precise programme to reflect their school’s particular circumstances, and respond to feedback that staff have given as the programme has been running.
Finally, there appears to be something of a gap in the “market” of organisations that provide advice and support to teachers and schools. There are many exceptional organisations – Place 2 Be and Young Minds, who are working with us as advisors to the project among them – who provide expert intensive training over a day or more to build expertise amongst school SENCos (special educational needs co-ordinators) and other lead pastoral staff in schools. What is much more difficult to find is organisations that are well placed to provide whole school training to all staff that can give a broad introduction to the issues during an INSET day or training session. Therefore rethinking how schools and voluntary organisations work together may be a valuable next step to more effectively recognise and provide support to children and young people with mental health difficulties.