A recent survey commissioned by Ecclesiastical Insurance showed that 90% of teachers agreed that schools will see a rise in pupil mental health concerns as students adapt to school life after months of online learning. Sixty-two per cent felt that pupil stress and anxiety will be the biggest challenge schools will face from September.
With the mental health of young people already cause for concern, my thoughts turn to the young people moving away from home to a boarding school, either for another year or for the first time. Not only will they be navigating an unfamiliar environment as their new home, they could be struggling with Covid-19 anxiety too.
“Supporting the health and wellbeing of boarding students is always our top priority and that has never been more important than during the ongoing Covid-19 crisis,” says Robin Fletcher, CEO of the Boarding Schools’ Association (BSA).
Fletcher says the main concern schools reported was students, understandably, wanting to ensure they were going to be as safe as possible. To address this, the BSA created the Covid-Safe Charter.
Schools that adopt the charter are able to provide reassurance to boarders and their families that they have done everything they can to make their schools safe. Things like cleaning protocols, procedures for testing pupils and whether pupils can wear face masks are all included in the charter. Fletcher says it has been “warmly received” by boarding communities in the UK and internationally.
Through its academy, the BSA has also offered online support to schools in areas such as the possible impact of Covid-19 and lockdown on the mental health and wellbeing of students; how to create positive and healthy routines for young people during the pandemic; and students’ future mental health and what lessons we can learn from lockdown.
“We’ll be continuing to offer support to all our member schools and any advice and guidance they may need. We’d encourage them to contact us as soon as possible if they do require any assistance,” says Fletcher.
Below, three independent schools – all of which have adopted the BSA’s Covid-Safe Charter – discuss how they will be supporting boarders’ wellbeing in a year like no other.
Back to school
“I’ve been in education for 26 years and if you had asked me what I thought we would face should a pandemic occur, I don’t think I could ever have predicted what we’ve been through,” says Zoë King, deputy head (pastoral) at the Royal Hospital School in Suffolk – which has 500 full boarders.
King tells me that anxiety is likely to be the main issue with boarders this year. “We’d already experienced, a bit like the national picture, that mental health in young people had risen before the pandemic, but I think anxiety particularly has come out as a main issue for young people following the pandemic. Children haven’t been in a school environment for such a long period of time, even though their lessons have continued, so there is a sense of anxiety on return at things being different.”
Of course, many changes have been made to school operations. King explains: “[The preparation has] been so different because we’ve had to plan so many times as guidelines have changed and new information has come through. We’ve had to look at every aspect of school life – from the time they arrive with their parents, to unpacking, to the structure and layout of the houses, to the routines during the day, in the evenings and over the weekends. Children will have a very different experience this year.”
Before the new term, King ran staff workshops about pupils returning, and many staff members received training by Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England. Now each boarding house has at least one trained staff member.
We’d already experienced, a bit like the national picture, that mental health in young people had risen before the pandemic, but I think anxiety particularly has come out as a main issue for young people following the pandemic – Zoë King, Royal Hospital School
“We have trained 25 teachers and 13 pastoral and support staff in Mental Health First Aid with the aim of empowering them to notice signs of mental ill health, and encourage them to break down barriers, listen in a non-judgmental way, and signpost vulnerable young people towards professional support either at school or from home,” says King.
She says this is one of the largest number of staff to be trained in this way in any school in the country. The course proved extremely popular amongst staff, so the school enabled more staff to take the course online.
During the new term, King says there will be increased contact time between pupils and tutors – now daily – and posters displayed around school with a list of people pupils can talk to about wellbeing concerns.
King says: “I do believe that through our strong pastoral team and our openness as a school to talk, our young people are able to find a way to tell us when things are not going well for them.”
Taking time to talk
ACS International School Cobham’s head of school, Barnaby Sandow, says student wellbeing has always been “central to boarding life” and this year they will continue to utilise their ‘1,000 Hour Project’.
The project leverages research around student attainment and wellbeing, and dedicates over 1,000 hours a year of staff time to talking with boarders.
Sandow explains: “Regular hour-long meetings are planned in line with the student’s needs, covering the six different elements of wellbeing on the Warwick Edinburgh scale. This means each meeting is personal, but the student’s thinking is focused.
“Feedback from students and parents has been overwhelmingly positive so far, showing that teenagers really benefit from having time reserved just for them. Staff members have noted improvements in the self-esteem of those taking part and an increased understanding of the students who they are working with. Tangible information on every child in our care has led to earlier and more impactful interventions too.”
When it comes to the extraordinary circumstances of this year’s return to school, Sandow says: “Retaining a small sense of normality is going to be critical in supporting student wellbeing this new school year.” This is why boarding students will take part in the regular educational programme, with social distancing and other measures in place.
All changes to routines and new safety arrangements were explained to pupils in writing, videos and pictures ahead of time, and then again in person when they arrived at school. New boarders also received full inductions.
Each boarding house now functions as a household in its own family bubble – which Sandow says will allow the school to deliver a “positive, family orientated experience”. House parents are also available 24 hours a day to provide support.
“Together, we ensure all boarders have the constant support, guidance and care to be happy, inspired and ready to make their mark on the world,” says Sandow.
Staff at Ashville College in Harrogate have kept in regular contact with existing boarders and their parents, as well as those joining in September, via email and one-to-one video calls.
Sally Warren, Ashville College’s head of boarding, says: “The message to parents and pupils is we are following all the guidelines set down by the government and the BSA and we are more than happy to answer any questions that they might have. We have really missed our boarding pupils and are really looking forward to September when hopefully the full Ashville boarding community can be reunited.”
With significant amounts of planning and training taking place over the summer, it’s bound to be an overwhelming time for boarding staff. Tracy Shand, founder of Boardingology, lists a number of ways boarding staff can support their own wellbeing this year, which will put them in the best place to look after pupils.
● Journal about your day. Highlight the places where you know stress or other factors got in the way of the outcome you wanted. What one thing would you change tomorrow to help? Action it.
● Write down all the different ways that help you stay grounded and feel better. When you hit a pause, just wait and more ideas will come. Now, try and put them into different points of your week. Choose your five a day.
● Create a wellbeing playlist of music that you associate with happy times. If music is not your thing, then make a collage of images that make you smile to release endorphins to make your day better.
● Have a conversation with someone. You could be the difference to someone. Take the time and get the kettle on.
● Be kind to yourself. Be your own best friend. Stop that negative self-talk; you are enough.
It’s clear that independent schools are going above and beyond to support boarders’ wellbeing this year – from increased training opportunities for staff to enhanced communication with pupils.
Now that schools are open and new routines are starting to form, I wonder whether the gloomy statistics about mental health we see on a regular basis could start to turn around. With many independent schools monitoring how their pupils are feeling with one-to-ones and questionnaires, we will soon see the impact of their support.