Good Mental Health: reflections on the 2016 Spring Conference

Insightful

Last week, HMC (The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference) ran a ‘Spring Conference’, a one-day focus on Good Mental Health in Schools. There were three key things that made this particular event significant for HMC: first, the brave choice of subject matter; second, the focus on practical solutions ('What works?’) that schools can adopt; third, the opportunity (for HMC delegates) to invite a colleague from the state sector along as a guest. So it was good to have Richard Bannister, Principal of the dynamic and impressive City of London Academy, Southwark, with me for the day.

On a personal note, I have also been privileged to see one of my former teachers (at Rendcomb College, in 'the dark backward abysm of time’) serve as Chairman of HMC this year and set the agenda for this important Conference. Chris King’s introduction was powerful; he identified the generation we are currently educating to be 'kinder to each other but harder on themselves’.

Stark Facts

The national facts with which we were presented were shocking. Recent years have seen a 70% increase in depression; counselling needs have tripled; 30% of girls and 14% of boys experience eating disorders; four to five percent of children experience depression; 25% of girls and 14% of boys self harm (data revealed from the last twelve months); about 19% of pupils experience anxiety disorders. Among people under 65, 50% of their health problems are to do with mental health; 75% of these problems are experienced by young people under 25, though only 50% of these cases are treated. Bad as these statistics are, they are only scratching the surface: not all who experience mental health issues, disclose. If there is any good news amid this bleak landscape, it is that - according to Sarah Brennan, CEO of the Young Minds programme - early intervention would prevent 25-50% of adult mental illness.

Self Esteem Team

Natasha Devon MBE, former Government ‘Mental Health Champion’ and Schools’ Adviser, challenged us from the outset to address the whole picture: 'Three children in every classroom have a mental health issue; all children have a mental health’. Here at Freemen’s we have been fortunate to have had one of Natasha’s colleagues from Self Esteem Team, Grace, spend time with our Sixth Form in week one of this term - the work that they are carrying out is impressive.

Natasha identified four areas prevalent in the 2014 Young Minds survey that were bothering young people the most:

  • Bullying.
  • Exam stress.
  • Body image.
  • Sexual pressure driven by pornography.

There are challenges here for teachers and parents, set against what was described as the ‘relentless pressure and pace of the internet’ and an 'agenda of consumerism rather than kindness’. What we must do in schools and at home is to make children feel 'important, valued and listened to’. The gauntlet thrown down in Natasha’s conclusion was one worth picking up: ’Education doesn’t mean anything if it is not set in the context of a healthy mind’.

Early Interventions

The importance of being able to identify young people’s mental health needs early and to act on them was a recurring theme of the conference. Dr Simon Walker, Bristol University, ran with an extended car metaphor to explain how his AS Tracking tool could prevent ‘pastoral car crashes’ by encouraging students to self-regulate and re-align their steering while encouraging schools to monitor and develop their 'school road’ to make the emotional journey for their students more comfortable. It was interesting, though not surprising, to hear that 'some children steer differently at home than they do at school’ and the AS Tracking tool can apparently help to explain why students can seem confident in a school context but appear less-dominant in a home one or vice-versa. Teachers and parents have, in my experience, sometimes felt like they are discussing different children at parent teacher consultations.

Monkton Combe School was the first independent school to use this tool, though Wellington College - well known for its focus on mindful, happy people - has been celebrated for its involvement recently.

Current House Parents cite this tool as being particularly useful in their pastoral care of boarders, though some day schools, including The Grange, are trialling AS Tracking with day pupils. I am interested to learn more about it.

What's to be done?

Professor Caroline Meyer, University of Warwick, explored familial risk factors which cause anxiety (over-controlling parenting; lack of care and supervision; lack of interest in children’s activities; partnership conflicts between parents; parental separation and divorce) as well as peer group pressures (social ties to delinquent peers and bullying, not least of the cyber variety) and social factors (poverty; deprivation). Like Natasha Devon, Professor Meyer was quick to point out the prominent part that the media plays in putting pressure on our children - both girls and boys - where body image is concerned. Enabling children to communicate effectively, encouraging humour and fun, developing problem solving skills, prioritising planning, emphasising the importance of reflection and giving praise for ‘being’ as well as for 'achieving’ are all things that can be done at school and at home to help children to cope and flourish.

It is clear that we all have to take some ownership of the pressure that the current generation of children is under and I confess to feeling some concern at the demands that I make - as a teacher, a Head and a parent - on children. The era of league tables, and Government intervention has put all schools under increasing pressure to deliver excellent results: this has put immense stresses on a generation of children (and their teachers). Parental ambitions are greater than they ever have been and an adult understanding of a competitive world is often projected on to young minds that are not developed enough to cope with it. And let’s not forget, children put an enormous amount of strain on themselves, perhaps to live up to the expectations of their teachers and parents?

Overly sexualised imagery with which children are bombarded cannot be doing them any good. Add in social media, the press, consumerism, the world-wide web, and the mix is more toxic than the atmosphere at Villa Park.

So we must work together to solve the problems.

Allan Foulds, President of ASCL (Association of School and College Leaders) brought our attention to a fitting quotation for the conference theme: 'When I is replaced by we, Illness becomes wellness’.

By Roland Martin, Headmaster, City of London Freemen's School