It seems that mental health and emotional wellbeing is in every educational publication and every news website I look at recently. That’s fantastic because for far too long, some schools have not valued emotional wellbeing as being as important as exam results. The Government Green Paper has made us all re-evaluate our position in supporting children with mental ill health, and rightly so, but we need to do more than this to make our schools emotionally healthy places. Without taking a whole-school approach to promoting and prioritising mental wellness and emotional wellbeing, we are simply firefighting and not making the most of our extremely limited resources to ensure that the young people who pass through our doors each day are equipped with the skills to navigate the ups and downs of life that they will face, both as students at school, and later, as adults in the communities where we live and work.
I’m really fortunate to work in a school where the rest of the senior leadership team agree with me, and the headteacher promotes a values-led school which allows us to make provision to develop the emotional wellbeing of our students.
Our school motto, “Excellence: for each, for all” holds true, not only for academia but also for the community as a whole. There is a real focus on the idea of community, of working towards a common good, and of helping each other to reach our potential. This sets the ethos of the school to be one where wellbeing naturally can blossom.
Within the school, we have a Student Services area, which is at the heart of our school. Our team of dedicated learning mentors work here, looking after the students, and in fact, the staff, in the school. This is our hub for all pastoral care, mental health and safeguarding. It is the site of our wellbeing area; this is a quiet and comfortable seating area, with resources available for students, and also where our wellbeing drop-in takes pace with our Mental Health First Aid team. We have an evening meeting each day, where our learning mentors meet, along with the Assistant Headteacher Student Support, to discuss students and any issues that have arisen during the day. Staff within the school are also welcome to attend, and frequently do, to discuss students or share observations. Following this, a daily email is sent internally to teachers to update them on any students who may need extra support, so that staff are aware, usually before they even go home, of any students who may be accessing support. This allows staff to take account of the wellbeing of the students that they teach, even as they are planning their lessons, in the same way, that staff take account of special educational needs. The team here also work closely with our careers team and ensure that students are also supported in thinking about next steps. Our careers team plan work experience for all of our students from Year 10 to Year 13, as well as supporting students with finding their way into those next steps after leaving us. For some of our more vulnerable students, this may mean going with them to visits or interviews – without this support, these students may well have ended up NEET (Not in Education, Employment, or Training).
Within the school, the senior leadership team not only have an Assistant Headteacher for Student Support, but also a Deputy Headteacher. Together, they analyse data to look for patterns and identify areas of concern in order that targeted support can be instigated where needed, but also to plan for preventative strategies. Progress data, attendance, and behaviour data are all crucial when looking for these patterns, but equally, that soft data that comes from tutors and teachers is invaluable. This allowed early identification of a problem relating to exam stress amongst a particular group of students in Year 11. As a result of this, we shortlisted our most anxious Year 11 students to work with. The aim was to reduce anxiety amongst this group.
We made use of a Health and Wellbeing Consultancy, who came into school and ran a parent workshop, along with a series of sessions focusing on different strategies for the students. The sessions all started by introducing a tool to help students manage their stress and wellbeing, to that the students were able to build up a bank of strategies. The two school nurses running the sessions also introduced some cognitive behavioural therapy techniques, along with giving the students an understanding of why we experience stress and how the brain reacts to stress. Immediately following this, the group reported a 60% boost in confidence and a 20% reduction in the effects of stress. These benefits, however, were far more widely felt. In previous years, we have had a room of at least 15 students sitting their GCSE exams who felt that they could not enter the main exam hall with their peers. This year, we had our highest ever number of exam concessions – 51 students from the year group of 225. However, we only had 3 students from the year group who, in the end, accessed a quiet room provision; one of these was accessing significant external mental health input, and another had extensive personal issues which occurred around the start of the exam season. The effect of reducing the effects of anxiety in the small group of students who accessed the workshop, it seems, had a wide-reaching effect in actually reducing the tendency for anxiety and stress-related panic across the entire year group.
We are also fortunate at our school to have a nurture provision. This takes the form of two classes, called the Access classes. These classes are located just off of our Student Services area, again, in the heart of the school. They are based on stage, not age, and they make provision for a wide variety of student needs. For some students, they are supported within access because they would not be able to access the academic curriculum, even in a lower ability set. For others, it is because they lack the social or emotional skills to navigate the main school curriculum. Some students may be in Access because they are struggling emotionally, or perhaps because they have a bereavement. The list of various needs that Access meets is so long that I couldn’t manage to note them all here. The provision is very fluid, with some students making use of Access for a short period of time, a few weeks, perhaps, and other students retaining some Access provision throughout their whole time in school. Equally, the amount of time each week that a student spends with Access is completely individual. The provision of a small class, with one teacher and a Learning Support Assistant, means that there can be a really individual focus on meeting each student’s needs and monitoring the development of many of the soft skills that can’t always be assessed by academic assessment.
Over the last few years, we have worked hard to make links with our local Primary Mental Health worker so that we can seek speedy advice where needed, and also ensure that students who have input from CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) have support from school that is well integrated with their medical care. Within our local community, we have excellent links with local counselling services, who come into school to work with our students, in small groups and on a one-to-one basis. The local youth workers also come to school to run sessions, for example, on body confidence, self-esteem and anger. Our student services area benefits from two chaplains who come in 3 to 4 days each week, to offer more support to students, but also for our staff.
We are fortunate to work in a school where the provision we have is excellent, and that we have staff who work tirelessly to make the most of the opportunities available to make our school a mentally healthy place, but it does start with a whole-school approach. Wellbeing has to be everybody’s business, and it has to be at least as important as curriculum, because, after all, staff and students are human beings, and human beings who are mentally healthy will thrive and be the best that they can be – truly, excellence: for each, for all.”
Emma Wilson-Downes is assistant headteacher at the Thomas Gainsborough School and is responsible for student support. Find her on Twitter at @EwilsonDownes.