Our first What if…? debate of 2018/19 addressed the provocation What if… we wanted our kids to be happier? We were delighted to be joined by panellists Caroline Hounsell of Mental Health First Aid England; Praveetha Patalay of UCL; Patrick Johnston of Place2Be, and Viv Grant, former head teacher and Director of Integrity Coaching. What emerged from the discussion was just what a trickle down issue children’s mental health is: first in the sense that, for teachers to be able to support young people’s well-being, their own needs to be looked after first; and then there’s the failure of (for the sake of a short-hand) ‘trickle-down’ economics.
The panel were clear that the prevalence of mental health issues has increased markedly over recent decades, and particularly so in the last few years: the IOE’s birth cohort study data show that today’s parents of teenagers have greater levels of mental health difficulties than parents from a decade ago, while a host of studies document the increased levels of reporting among children, and from ever younger ages. As last month’s Nuffield Trust report also shows, reduced stigma may account for some of the rise, but by no means all of it. Nowhere are these pressures felt more strongly than in schools – which are themselves simultaneously caught up in the same dynamics and on the frontline of mediating young people’s growing sense of unease.
Social media and the increase in high-stakes testing are the ‘go to’ villains in relation to young people’s mental health, and both featured strongly in our panel’s remarks. So did the wider themes of which they are part – a culture of high expectations and perfectionism coupled with diminishing space for young people to pursue interests for their own sake, take risks and, above all, fail (or simply just be average). This is tied in with a vicious circle in the schools system of narrowing curriculum diets and a narrowing focus on test scores.
Paradoxically, for some schools, stepping out of that loop by putting mental health front and centre has paid dividends in terms of the very test-based performance indicators that are driving schools’ part in the problem. By keeping the curriculum broad and enabling all children to find something at which they excel, schools can find that Key Stage test results ‘look after themselves’. This requires a whole school approach, from the governors down, that also draws in non-teaching staff (as important ‘eyes and ears’ within a school) as well as parents and guardians. Not all schools have yet taken the first step of putting in place a mental health and well-being policy, and one place to start is by bringing together behaviour and anti-bullying policies.
Such an agenda also needs to address teacher support and professional development. Leaders and teachers ‘set the weather’ in their schools and classrooms, so their mental health needs come first. Just as we need to attend to the whole child, good teaching stems from the whole person; we cannot just build technique, we need to keep teachers connected to their sense of purpose.
Important as they are, such provisions of course risk being mere sticking plasters. School accountability and assessment (topics that our debates series will be tackling this year – next up is assessment) should not be elements that schools actively need to work around to mitigate their impact on teachers’ and pupils’ mental health. But even more so, as our panel and audience observed, economic inequalities sit at the root of our declining sense of well-being. Trickle-down economics has failed to narrow the gap, and we are paying the price. As an interesting aside, analysis from the IOE’s Millennium Cohort Study at age 11 years has found that feeling richer or poorer than one’s peers is associated with a reduced sense of well-being among young people. In seeking out ‘what works’ in tackling the problem of poor mental health we’ll need to look at big system changes as well as school-based interventions.
You can listen back to or watch the debate in full here.