Many moons ago, when I joined the teaching profession, pastoral care was taking a register twice a day and a few other, largely administrative, functions viewed as peripheral to the important job of teaching.
Serious matters, such as bereavement in the family, were passed upwards to the housestaff or the Head, but very few such matters seemed to exist. Teachers taught, children learned, played sport, played instruments and did a bit of gentle acting when the opportunity arose. We all just got on with it.
How different is the context in which we work today.
We concern ourselves at least as much with the emotional welfare of our charges as we do with the educational outcomes they achieve; and rightly so. Our schools employ counsellors, available to both children and colleagues. We train teachers in mental health, first aid and dealing with issues of children’s mental healthcare. Some have gone further by appointing full-time professionals specifically responsible for community welfare. Others offer mindfulness classes, more physical activity or restrict time spent on social media.
We no longer concern ourselves with the wellbeing of just our children but recognise the impact of professional demands on teachers and our role within our wider communities. Families, who in the past would have turned to parish priest or friendly family GP, frequently have no meaningful community other than that emanating from their children’s schools; our schools. Pastoral care is now recognised as the bedrock of effective education and the nurturing of passionate, caring young adults who can contribute meaningfully to society.
The challenges we face are by no means limited to independent schools and the government acknowledges that the crescendo of serious mental health issues in young people in this country has swollen to an agonising number of cases of self-harm, eating disorders, anxiety disorders and depression.
Before the recent election Nick Clegg announced plans to spend an extra £250m in each year of the next parliament in this area, representing a rise of more than a third on current spending. The money would be invested in therapy, family support, training for clinicians and the development of websites and online apps. But such an approach responds to the symptoms; it does nothing to address the causes. Until we find a way to tackle the root of the problem we can do no more than apply sticking plasters to potentially fatal wounds. Whilst I applaud the outgoing government’s aspiration to bring about a “seismic shift to revolutionise children’s mental healthcare,” what is needed is a wide-ranging and penetrating analysis of what has changed in our society.
To read more, see the June 2015 issue of HMC's Insight magazine.