Wellbeing – hardly an untapped subject these days, especially since the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic. But what is being done in independent schools to address the issue, and – perhaps a more enduring question – how will what we do now affect education in the future?
Wellbeing is ‘fundamental and critical’
“Before lockdown, the majority of our mental health concerns were tied to body image, relationships at home and academic progress or status,” says Lara Péchard, head at St Margaret’s School in Hertfordshire. “As we come through the pandemic, we find that many of these anxieties are intensified. Family difficulties or tensions at home will have been tested during this third lockdown in particular.”
The pandemic has, of course, increased focus on mental health and wellbeing – both for pupils and staff – but it has also been high on independent schools’ agenda for decades, says Jeff Shaw, chair of the Independent Schools Association (ISA) and headmaster at Scarisbrick Hall School.
“Many independent schools are leading the way, and many schools in the ISA have had mental wellbeing as part of the main curriculum, even for decades before the pandemic.”
So, what has changed? “We’re starting to push towards an experiential way of learning wellbeing by actually doing it,” says Shaw.
“We can see this in many independent schools through their strong aspects of outdoor learning, which was so important pre-pandemic, but has now been accelerated.” In fact, one of the post-lockdown priorities for the Alderley Edge School for Girls (AESG), says headmistress Nicola Smillie, is “to ensure that we return to a full enrichment programme of extra-curricular activities, trips and visits, and visiting speakers”.
The difference post-pandemic, says Shaw, is that what was once considered “very important” is now considered “fundamental and critical”.
Mental health vs wellbeing
The terms ‘mental health’ and ‘wellbeing’ are often used interchangeably, but is there a difference between them?
Mike Crossley, prep headmaster at Langley School, thinks so. “Unfortunately, ‘mental health’ still has negative connotations in many people’s minds, and we take time and plan carefully to try and explain to the children that positive mental health sits hand in hand with positive physical health,” he says.
Smillie differentiates even further: “Having good mental health is not simply the absence of a mental health disorder. It is a state of wellbeing in which every individual can cope with the normal stresses of everyday life and fulfil their own potential.”
Mental health, as a concept, is just one pillar of the larger umbrella of ‘wellbeing’, asserts Shaw.
He expands: “Mental health and wellbeing are certainly and inextricably linked. Mental health is a pillar of overall wellbeing. If someone’s wellbeing is out of kilter, you’ll be analysing their mental health, but equally, poor mental health could be the thing that triggers a lack of wellbeing.”
Melissa Clinton, joint head of wellbeing at Canford School in Dorset, sees mental health as “relating to signs and symptoms of emotional distress”.
But what happens if these signs and symptoms aren’t necessarily visible? It’s then that we need to delve ‘below the surface’.
The iceberg model
A lot of people look at school outcomes through what Shaw calls ‘the iceberg model’. He explains: “What you see above the water is the results, the achievements, the wonderful trips going on. But what’s happening beneath the surface is – quite rightly – getting more attention now.
“People are starting to ask more questions like ‘What’s supporting that child’s achievement?’ and ‘What is enabling them to reach those heights?’ And these dependencies are being brought into sharp focus.”
We all know the image – the famous photograph of an iceberg’s peaks above water paling in comparison to the depth reaching below the surface. But how can we understand these depths?
“The truth is that we may well not realise the full impact of the pandemic on pupil mental health for some time yet,” says Abbey Jones, deputy head pastoral at Haberdasher’s Aske’s School for Girls.
“The key, as always, is going to be to keep fostering positive relationships with trusted members of staff, to be proactive in reaching out to pupils and families we know might be struggling, and to ensure students know where and how to seek support should they need it.”
Pointing pupils towards support is one thing that the majority of schools have in common. From resources such as St Margaret’s School’s welfare hub and Langley Prep School’s purpose-built ‘Time4U’ room, to on-site counsellors and mental health first aiders, there are numerous ways in which schools are supporting pupils and staff through what is a particularly difficult time.
York House School in Hertfordshire has also been harnessing the power of technology to support pupils.
Mike Gedye, assistant head pastoral, explains: “Pupils were given use of a private chat function to staff to communicate any concerns or worries without drawing any unwanted attention to themselves. We also provided an online ‘worry note’ created by the schools’ safeguarding lead where students could let her know how they were feeling and were given the opportunity to ask for help.”
The man who built his house upon the rocks
A common thread through all of these schools is the idea that happy children make better learners. “Wellbeing is always the cornerstone of success in life,” says Shaw.
“No educator I know would be happy for a pupil to have strong academics but a poor sense of wellbeing. It’s like the parable of the man who built his house upon the rocks, as opposed to sand. You can have someone who drives hard for academic success, but there needs to be a strong foundation beneath them to enable success in life.”
Indeed, the two go hand-in hand, says Clinton. “We want our pupils to aim high and achieve to the best of their ability, but never at the cost of their mental health,” she says.
“The happiness of our pupils is fundamentally important to us. We believe the happier and more secure the pupil, the better their productivity, outcomes and success.”
This seems to be the consensus. Péchard comments: “It doesn’t have to be either/or. Children won’t learn if there is so much concerning them that they can’t concentrate. Happy children will focus better and learn better.”
Back to the future
Now schools are opening up again and there are hopes of going ‘back to normal’ as a way of navigating the future, what changes will we see in mental health provision?
We can certainly derive some positive memories from the pandemic, says Jones. “It feels like everyone has become more aware of the importance and impact of the small things in life,” she says, “spending time outside, keeping in touch with family and friends, finding new hobbies to enjoy. I hope we will remember how much these things meant to us.”
Similarly for AESG, says Smillie, the focus will be on the ‘extra’ elements of school that make life so enjoyable.
“We are acutely aware that some children have had feelings of loneliness or isolation when working remotely. By providing opportunities for the girls to enjoy activities that promote wellbeing, such as sport and music, we are increasing possibilities for social interaction, team-building activities and increasing independence,” she says.
The most important thing, though, argues Shaw, is maintaining a culture of listening and understanding in schools, so pupils feel heard and understood.
“Ultimately, it’s about ensuring that the school’s culture allows the space for pupils to open up and talk. They need to feel confident that they can speak out and be heard. And part of that is making sure that staff are not too tense and have what you’d call ‘smiling eyes’.”
Staff training and wellbeing has been a big focus across the ISA, adds Shaw. “If you’ve got a culture of people being heard, without advice to follow, that doesn’t work – you need all the ingredients together.”
At the end of the day, with the right support, children are incredibly resilient, says Jones. “Children and young people who are loved and supported through strong, reliable relationships, who are exposed to a range of people, places and situations, and who have positive coping techniques modelled to them, with the space to make mistakes and the guidance to learn from them, will have the ability and capacity to deal with and ‘bounce back’ from life’s difficulties.”
Shaw is also adamant that the current generation should never be called ‘The Covid Generation’.
“That is mentally damaging, it is stigmatising, it is discriminatory and would do more harm than good,” he says. “These pupils are extraordinary. They are resilient, they are superheroes and they are showing more depth of character in this time than any other year group I’ve seen.”
The impact of mental ill health in young people
● Half of mental ill health starts by the age of 15 and 75% develops by the age of 18
● 12.8% of young people aged 5–19 meet clinical criteria for a mental health disorder
● About 10% of young people aged 8–15 experience a low sense of wellbeing
Source: MFHA England
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