The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) has said schools prioritised introducing new or enhanced mental health support during lockdown.
“With uncertainty and fear raising anxiety levels, schools have prioritised a range of new or enhanced measures to support the morale and mental health of both pupils and staff,” said HMC.
The association said its members – independent school heads – reported many pupils feeling “stressed over worries that they are falling behind in their academic work”.
“The heads say that while children who normally exhibit resilience appear, on the surface at least, to be coping well, the minority who were already experiencing problems before the lockdown were those most likely to display increased anxieties,” said HMC.
One of the cornerstones of school structure is exams. The ad hoc replacing of a formal end-of-year test with an assessment of work-to-date presented a unique concern, according to Dan Harrison, the head of Sedbergh School in Cumbria.
“Some [pupils] are worrying about whether they had done enough through the year,” he said. “It is a loss of control because, if they walk out of the exam, at least they know how they think they have done. We have made sure there is increasing frequent conversation with pupils we are most worried about.”
As well as talking to staff, students have been using the GoVox wellbeing app to reflect on how they are feeling. The information is fed back to staff, who can then identify anyone requiring additional support. Usually, the feedback would be monitored monthly; during lockdown, it was checked weekly, with staff as well as students reporting on their wellbeing.
The coeducational school has also been trying to keep the students’ routine as normal as possible. Although the 550 boarders were physically separated, pupils continued to: speak to their housemaster/housemistress on a weekly basis; have one-to-one communication with their tutor almost daily; engage in house activities, competitions and social events; and enjoy a range of extracurricular activities.
The school counsellor and wellbeing coordinator have continued to engage with pupils, and PSHE lessons continued. Other measures have included a fortnight of optional lessons preparing for life beyond school, extending pastoral care for leavers beyond results day and a virtual careers fair.
“We need to return with the realisation prompted by the lockdown that the daily interaction of school life for students and staff is to be valued” – Mark Ronan, headmaster, The King’s Hospital School
The King’s Hospital School in Dublin also put special measures in place to support pupils’ mental health.
Pupils were contacted individually by pastoral staff, with any concerns passed along to the school’s wellbeing team (with members including nurses, counsellors, the school chaplain and the assistant head of wellbeing), who then offered further support to students that needed it.
The school counsellor has been employed over the summer months, and is preparing for the autumnal return by researching best practice gleaned from past traumatic episodes across the world. Social media tips on mental health will be posted weekly over the summer, along with a virtual guide and introduction to the school for incoming first years. A therapy dog is also set to be introduced.
Headmaster Mark Ronan said: “Young people have been remarkable in how they have navigated these extraordinary circumstances. We have learned and engaged well with online platforms and, indeed, for some of our students they have really benefitted from this educational experience. However, what has been evident is that connection with one another is paramount to our school community.
“Therefore, in September we will not just be returning to restart curriculum and catch up; we need to return with the realisation prompted by the lockdown that the daily interaction of school life for students and staff is to be valued. We also have to be cognisant that for some their lived experience over these past months has been extraordinarily difficult, which is why we are engaging our school counsellor over the summer.
“There has been a lot learned over these past months and we will be continually striving to best serve our students and staff”.