Apart from the regular directives from whoever happens to be in the role of secretary of state for education, the largest educational shift in recent years has been towards a recognition that educating for life (as opposed to just an instrument with which to pass examinations) is crucial if we are to support young people with their wellbeing, including staying mentally and physically well as they move into and through adulthood.
What makes this job particularly difficult is the increased burden of mental health issues.
Ninety per cent of school leaders have reported an increase in the number of students experiencing anxiety or stress over the last five years. At the same time, referrals to specialist mental health services have more than doubled in the past 10 years. As a result, NHS Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) are overwhelmed. Currently, just one in four children with a diagnosable mental health problem gets access to the treatment and care that they need.
We’re talking about self-care being built into the very fabric of the school
Economic implications for schools
Data from the British Child and Adolescent Mental Health Survey (BCAMHS) indicates that, for young people aged 12–15 at baseline assessment (aged 15–18 by the end of a three-year follow-up period), mental health-related average costs totalled £1,778 per student per year; 90% of this cost was incurred by the education sector.
Over the course of their education, children spend over 7,800 hours at school. While I am not suggesting that schools can help to ‘solve’ the problem of young people’s poor mental health, the social and emotional skills, knowledge and behaviours that young people learn in the classroom can certainly help them to build resilience and set the pattern for how they will manage their mental health throughout their lives.
Yet, we still seem to be managing these demands through a process of ‘make do and mend’. Schools are having to make tough decisions about which services to cut. Some are even having to make choices between simple teaching and learning resources over wellbeing provision. Meanwhile, the Department for Education has found that, on average, children with higher levels of emotional, behavioural, social and school wellbeing, had higher levels of academic achievement and were more engaged in school.
Mindfulness and young people
Research evidence involving young people and mindfulness is still in its infancy (it’s only been used systematically in school contexts for the past 10–20 years). However, the evidence to date suggests that focused, classroom-based mindfulness courses in school settings can reliably impact on a wide range of indicators of positive psychological, social and physical wellbeing in young people.
They have also shown positive impacts on emotional self-regulation, the development of compassion, relationship skills and empathy. Positive impacts are also seen in terms of learning, executive function and cognitive processes, particularly on the ability to focus and sustain the attention, and reduce aggression and hostilityi.
As professor Katherine Weare states, it is sometimes useful to see mindfulness as the ‘WD40 of education’. When learned and taught well, it can just make things go a little more smoothly. And the financial implications of this for schools could be significant, especially when coupled with its potential benefits for staff.
Economics of staff wellbeing
A Guardian teacher pollii found that 79% of schools were struggling to recruit or retain teachers, whilst 43% of the state school teachers polled were planning to leave the profession in the next five years.
In 2016, just under 40,000 teachers in the UK left the profession, and there is every indication that this figure continues to rise. There is now a shortfall of 30,000 classroom teachers, particularly at secondary level, where 20% of teacher training vacancies are unfilled.
A lack of teachers means classes are getting bigger. Bigger classes are harder to control. Losing control stops teachers teaching. With less teaching time, students make less progress. And so it continues.
Mindfulness and school staff
Please note, we’re not talking here about giving staff an occasional afternoon option of choosing mindfulness or a walk in the school nature garden. We’re talking about self-care being built into the very fabric of the school. What staff model to students is more likely to be adopted by them in the long run.
While mindfulness is in no way a magic bullet, research identifying the benefits of mindfulness for school staff echo the wider adult and workplace literature on the impacts of mindfulness, including:
● Reductions in stress, burnout and anxiety, a reduction in days off work and feelings of task- and time-pressure, an increase in coping skills, motivation, planning and problem-solving
● Better mental health including less distress, depression and anxiety
● Greater wellbeing, including life satisfaction, self-confidence, self-efficacy, self-compassion and sense of personal growth
● Better physical health, including lower blood pressure, and fewer reported physical health problems
● Increased cognitive performance, including the ability to pay attention and focus, make decisions and respond flexibly to challenges
● Enhanced job performance, including better classroom management and organisation, greater ability to prioritise, to be more self-motivated and autonomous, to show greater ‘tuning in’ to students’ needs, and achieve more supportive relationships with themiii.
Overall, whole-school approaches are most effective in promoting wellbeing and good mental healthiv. These approaches can improve staff and pupil wellbeing, and have a positive impact on the prevention and reduction of mental health problems across school populationsv. Indeed, Ofsted has identified a strong correlation between schools that achieved a high grade for personal, social, health and economic education and those that were graded outstanding for overall effectivenessvi.
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iv Department for Education (2016) Counselling in schools: a blueprint for the future: departmental advice for school leaders and counsellors
v Weare, K. (2015), What works in promoting social and emotional well-being and responding to mental health problems in schools? http://www.cumbria.gov.uk/eLibrary/Content/Internet/537/6381/42179102926.pdf
vi Public Health England, (2014) The link between pupil health and wellbeing and attainment