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Changing the conversation

Helen Jeys, Headmistress at Alderley Edge School for Girls, discusses why well-being tuition is essential in schools

Posted by Alice Savage | June 01, 2017 | Health & wellbeing

One cannot have escaped the young royals on the news over recent days and weeks; Prince Harry’s description of how he reacted to his mother’s untimely death has been viewed as changing the conversation on mental health. This news coverage can only be greeted positively. Indeed, the majority of classroom practitioners will know the statistic that, on average, there are three children in each of our classrooms with a diagnosable mental health disorder.
A report in the Belfast Telegraph on 4 April said that, “80% of students in Northern Ireland were reported to have suffered mental health issues during the last year”. The news in our country as a whole is not good. Regrettably, in a recent PISA study, the UK was said to be ranked 38 out of 48 for teenage well-being.

So, yes, I am pleased that the action of the royals is putting this vitally important issue at the top of the news agenda. However, what does concern me is that for those of us involved in the management of pastoral care, none of this is new. In fact, it was way back in 2006 that Anthony Seldon introduced the teaching of happiness at Wellington College. He is still advocating the vital importance of such teaching programmes 11 years later! It was only in October last year that he commented that schools which prioritised well-being helped students “perform better than exam factories.” It is with some frustration, therefore, that we still seem to be talking, nationally, about the problem of mental health rather than the solution.

If you have not done so already, I would urge you, therefore, to read the government’s response to the Five Year Forward View for Mental Health, published in January 2017. In it, we hear about an upcoming Green Paper on children and young people’s mental health and the provision of mental health first aid training for all secondary teachers. It also promises more money for vital associated services; I really hope that children’s mental health services are at the front of that queue.

However, I don’t think that – as educators – we can wait for the results of such green papers and randomised trials. I have been writing about pro-active approaches to mental health for some years now and, if the recent royalist support for such initiatives can do anything, it is to ensure that all of us act now to try and help support the young people in our schools. Furthermore, it is not just those of a secondary school age that we must help – it is those younger children where habits can be formed and attitudes set – that need to be given the strategies needed to promote a healthy mind. 

Anthony Seldon has called for a league table of schools, ranked according to the well-being of their students. He said: “As long as the only metric on which schools are being assessed is their exam performance, our schools will never have the incentive to take well-being as seriously as they should.” 

Whether we agree with Anthony or not, I do think we have an absolute duty to be providing well-being tuition to our students. Yes, we need the counsellors and the funding to help the crisis in the NHS, but we also need to be facing the issue in our own schools. As Sarah Brennan, Chief Executive of YoungMinds, said about recent figures published about those suffering mental health issues: “These figures should act as a wake-up call. As a society, we need to do far more to prevent mental health problems from developing in the first place.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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