Mental health is a topic that has risen to the very top of our social consciousness in recent years, and with good reason. Across a range of ages, mental health problems such as anxiety, depression or conduct disorders are increasingly recognised as affecting our abilities to navigate through our personal relationships, careers, life choices and, for our children, their education.
According to the Mental Health Foundation, mental health problems affect roughly one in 10 children, and are often a direct response to what is happening in their lives. But more concerning is the fact that they believe 70 percent of those young people who experience a mental health problem have not had appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age.
There has been a growing movement for schools to help change this statistic, and most have responded with enthusiasm and commitment. But good intentions will only go so far, and the importance of knowing how and where to focus our efforts in order to maximise the benefit to our children is integral. That’s why we’ve looked at the key elements within the outlook and provision of some of the North’s most successful schools to understand just how we can best support our children’s mental health.
As an independent day and boarding preparatory school, Aysgarth School recognise the importance of fostering a sense of trust between staff and pupils, and between pupils and their classmates.
‘Our pastoral care is about the whole child and their holistic development, because they spend more time here than they do at home,’ explains Paul Barlow, Deputy Headmaster and Housemaster. ‘Our view is that if a child is happy, having fun and feels safe, then the rest just happens. If a child feels safe, that makes them feel like they can be different without being teased. They can be who they want to be. That’s our full focus.
‘So we concentrate very much on developing relationships with every child so that they feel they’ve got somebody they can really trust. We’ve increased the levels of boarding staff so that we’ve got more adults looking after less children, and I’m adamant that we shouldn’t lose that pastoral touch of our staff developing trust with students organically through activities. Every member of staff here has to run two evening activities, so it’s something different from what they deliver in the classroom to allow pupils to see what they’re like outside of their teaching capacity.
‘We’re also not afraid to get outside help, especially when it comes to mental health. We work with Teenagers Translated, a company who bring psychologists into the school three times a year. Being a boys’ school, a big focus for us is getting the boys to share their emotions.’
The mental health provision in Mowden Hall School, a co-educational day and boarding preparatory school near Stocksfield, is driven by the belief that, in order to combat the pressures our children face in the online world, their school should be an environment in which they are brought back to reality.
‘The white water of growing up is hard enough to steer through, without having to pretend that it is not happening when you are online,’ reasons Headmaster Neal Bailey. ‘The best way to mitigate this taking hold of a pupil is to throw them into as many real, collaborative experiences as possible. A good school life will take you outside for physical, psychological and spiritual reasons.
‘Without taking risks, children are not developing resilience and a sense of self. Instead, they remain trapped in timidity, forever vulnerable to the all-encompassing fear of instant online judgement and social exclusion – continually measuring their achievements against the edited highlights of others’.
‘Of course, nobody can deny that the internet has had a hugely positive impact on young people’s lives. But would it not be healthier to celebrate anything that shouts individuality, self-expression and freedom to choose? Above all, let us cheer authenticity by encouraging children to be bold, whatever the online consequences. Only by doing so will they grow up to truly know themselves and, with a bit of luck, to be comfortable with the person they really are.
‘At Mowden Hall, we want our pupils to be creative, to show initiative, to develop their own questions and answers, so we will continue to provide pupils with fresh opportunities and encourage them to find their own solutions. After all, action without vision is only passing time; vision without action is merely day-dreaming. But vision with action can lead to extremely positive and exciting changes.’
Navigating mental health problems for Edinburgh’s independent, co-educational day and boarding school, Fettes College, means creating activity programmes, student bodies and physical spaces where students can learn to support each other.
‘The Fettes Personal and Social Education (PSE) programme develops healthy relationships, resourcefulness, decision-making, risk assessment, communication skills, strategies for coping, and emotional resilience in our pupils – supporting them now and for the future,’ says Susan Bruce, Head of PSHE. ‘So within the curriculum, students are actively engaged in health and wellbeing.
‘The Hub is a pupil-focused drop-in base where there is a time slot every day, led by a member of the Listening Team, (formed of teaching and non-teaching staff and PSE prefects). This gives an alternative space for pupils who need a listening ear or just some peace and time to breathe during the school week. It also provides a dedicated space for PSE prefect meetings, the pupil-led Fettes Equalities Society, our Mentors in Violence Prevention Programme (MVP), lesson planning, small-group PSE tutorials, and mindfulness activities.
‘Our strong, pupil-led Fettes Equalities Society meet to encourage open dialogue amongst pupils. They seek not only to raise awareness but to engage the whole school in the idea of equality through fun and engaging activities. A very successful annual Equalities Week is also held. In December 2017, Fettes received its LGBT Gold Charter award.
‘PSE-themed weeks are a key tool to address important issues and recognise what our students need from us in order to provide a supportive environment for one another, which promotes effective learning alongside wellbeing. Later this year, for example, all staff will receive training on Self Harm in Young People, and training in Mental Health First Aid is already underway.’
Through their highly-acclaimed diamond model, independent co-educational school Dame Allan’s in Newcastle are proving that an effective educational structure grants our children the freedom they need to express themselves.
‘Facilitated by our diamond model, class sizes in the Boys’ and Girls’ Schools are small, and so excellent relationships between pupils and teachers are fostered,’ explains Principal Dr John Hind. ‘Pupils are supported by a dedicated form teacher, head of year and head of school, all of whom know each of the pupils in their care. A dedicated class teacher replicates this care in the Junior School.
‘Studies show that educating children separately during teenage years removes limitations created by gender stereotypes. At Dame Allan’s, boys and girls have the freedom to push boundaries and experiment with various subjects and interests without fear of embarrassment. Our diamond model ensures our pupils are free to choose activities without gender bias, thus gaining access to a much broader range of experiences than they otherwise might. And the absence of the opposite sex in lessons such as PSHE allows for freer discussion.
‘For all pupils, there will be times when specialist support is necessary to help navigate the choppy waters of adolescence. We were ahead of the game in 2006 when we first secured the services of our wonderful school counsellor, and pupils have been taking advantage of this provision ever since – with pupils either asking to see the counsellor or gently guided there by the pastoral staff. We have a thriving SEN hub where educational support is in place, as well as pastoral support for those who need it. Our school nurse provides a sympathetic ear as well as medical help and, from November this year, the Schools will have recruited a psychological therapist to give an extra avenue of support for our pupils.’