Education: Schools act early to catch mental illness

by
14 June 2019

Oxford schools are promoting mental health — even among pre-school children, Pat Ashworth discovers

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GOING to a school that looks after the well-being of all its pupils is one of the five key factors that the Children’s Mental Health Foundation says helps to keep children and young people mentally well.

The latest NHS figures show that one in every 18 pre-school children has a mental-health disorder; one in ten primary; one in seven secondary; and one in six in adulthood. Seventy per cent of those who are experiencing a problem have not had appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age, the Foundation says. It describes this as “alarming”.

There is general agreement that more children and young people have problems with their mental health than 30 years ago — something ascribed to a change in lifestyle, and how this affects the experience of growing up.

Provision of mental-health services is acknowledged to be patchy. In research published by the National Association of Head Teachers in 2017, more than half school leaders said that support was difficult to find. More than one fifth of those who had tried were unsuccessful. Other surveys have identified that having to discover what type of support to provide to pupils is one barrier to providing it.

The Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust (ODST), a multi-academy trust with 33 primary, junior, and middle schools, is tackling this issue head-on for the 6100 pupils in its care. Its chief executive, Anne Davey, says that, because the core business of the trust is supporting the whole child and the adults in the school community — “developing human beings in all their fullness” — mental health has always been on the agenda.

It took on momentum, however, after cuts to national and local-authority funding left schools unable to support children in the way in which they had previously been able to do through the social-care system.

 

OXFORDSHIRE is a demographically mixed county. Inner-city areas present one kind of challenge, leafy suburbs another. Whatever the social class, Ms Davey says, and whether it’s the problems of chaotic home lives or helicopter parenting, all children need to have stillness, and need to know that they are loved. The task is to build mental-health resilience that will help children to cope.

Building time for reflection into the school day is a big part of that; learning rhythms based on quiet: “having space to yourself when no one wants anything of you — that goes for staff, too,” she says. “Deep, quiet, reflective time is just mission-critical for all humans.”

Children identified as the most vulnerable could wait many months for therapeutic counselling: few local authorities still employ educational psychologists, for example, most of whom are now working independently and are considerably overstretched. The ODST draws support from Christian charities such as Fegans, which counsels children and provides parental support, intervention, and training (Comment, 30 November 2018).

Fegans’s counsellors work with children who are struggling with their emotional well-being and are not thriving in the way that a primary-age pupil should. Reasons might be bereavement, family breakdown, having a parent in prison, the impact of immigration, or just finding the social aspects of life in modern Britain overwhelming.

“We are very grateful to have charities like this working with us. It’s not entirely free — the school has to produce some resources — but the impact on children is so significant that any school will think it is worth spending,” Ms Davey says.

 

AMONG mental disorders in children, anxiety has been identified as the one that dominates. One child, troubled by the turbulent break-up of her parents’ relationship, writes: “The teacher told my Mummy about this place [Fegens], because she noticed me picking my nails and tugging hard on my hair, but I don’t realise I’m doing it.

“I don’t know why. I worry about lots of things. . . I worry about SATS at school, and not doing well enough. I’m worried about Mummy forgetting to pick me up. I worry about being sick at school and people teasing me and not wanting to be my friend. . . I feel better when I leave [the session] because I can share it with someone. I don’t like keeping it all inside.”

The results in ODST schools have been encouraging. The head teacher of St Mary’s C of E Primary School, Banbury, Victoria Woods, says that the attendance of pupils who have had counselling has improved dramatically, and behavioural incidents have been reduced for the most challenged pupils.

“Families have been massively supportive,” she says. “They notice improved behaviour and communication, and we really can also see that the children who have benefited so far from the service have made more rapid progress in their academic learning than was previously expected.”

Building resilience can take all kinds of forms: one tiny village school has put all its play equipment into the trees, and actively encourages children to climb them. A thoroughly holistic approach at John Henry Newman Academy, a large urban school with pupils from a wide range of backgrounds, means that every child does mindfulness or yoga every day, as well as being encouraged to do the Daily Mile, a national project encouraging children to run, jog, or walk at school for 15 minutes a day, with the object of covering a mile.

Dan VernonThe London Marathon winner, Eliud Kipchoge, who ran the Daily Mile with children from the John Henry Newman Academy in Oxford

This year’s London Marathon winner, Eliud Kipchoge, visited the school after his triumph, to run with the children, urging them to “let their light shine”: the school’s vision for itself and for the community of Littlemore.

“We celebrate our successes and differences, and love and respect those around us,” the head teacher, Katie Screaton, says. “Well-being and mental health are fundamental to the success of our children, families, staff, and community, and we have a wide range of activities and initiatives that contribute to this mission.”

These include weekly and monthly well-being challenges and competitions; weekly well-being tips for staff and families; strong parental involvement in everything from parent classes to classes in ESOL, English, ICT, and e-safety; and “worry boxes”, in which children can deposit their concerns. Well-being is defined as “feeling comfortable, healthy, and happy”, and all children are encouraged to develop the belief that grit, resilience, and effort, rather than intelligence, is the route to success.

“Children should learn not to dwell on mistakes, and learn from them. Our students recognise that practice makes progress, not perfect,” Tom Linden, the head of well-being, says. The school is one of two so far to have gained ODST’s Family Champion Quality Standard, designed to encourage and improve pupil and whole-family engagement in learning and the life of the school.

 

THE mental health of staff is important, too, Head teachers in the diocese of Oxford have recourse to performance and resilience support for their own well-being. It is significant, Ms Davey says, that it is based at the Community of St Mary the Virgin, at Wantage.

“We value the relationship we have with the Sisters. It’s wonderful to tune in and respond to their lifestyle and rhythms, based on quiet and how to disappear a bit when the world is at you. That’s something they can also take back into their schools.”

Mental health and well-being is the focus of an ODST head-teachers’ conference later this month. The keynote speaker is Tatiana Wilson, education adviser for the diocese of Exeter and author of the C of E Education Department guidelines, Mental Health and Wellbeing: A whole school approach. Pressure from the department, in conjunction with the Children’s Society, has procured, from September, the inclusion of mental health and well-being in every statutory inspection: how it is being supported, and how it links with a church school’s distinctive vision for education.

“It’s about asking what we are about, and why we are here, and how we are an expression of God’s love,” Mrs Wilson says. Children are much more likely to flourish academically if they know they are known and loved, she suggests. The approach in the work with church and community schools is to include parents, families, and churches: places of welcome and belonging that can offer support for families.

“Partnerships like these are in an embryonic stage, but are the way forward,” she says. “We need to see schools not just as full of children, but as intergenerational communities where our links with the church can be really useful.”

Readily available and downloadable mental-health resources for these include the mainstream Mental Health Access Pack. Schools are also encouraged to work in partnership with local and health authorities, with the emphasis on joined–up thinking.

“Sometimes, we need to give children a vocabulary to help them understand that anxiety is normal, and part of how we are — until it becomes prolonged and help is needed. We need to work with children at a very young age so that they understand and develop these building blocks for having a healthy approach,” Mrs Wilson says.

She continues: “The Church of England has a lot of primary schools, where children are learning good habits and ways of being, so that, when they are in secondary school, they have techniques to use. And that also accords with the spiritual dimension of things in our schools: something else that they can have recourse to when things are difficult.”

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