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Russell Hobby

Russell Hobby

Russell Hobby, general secretary of NAHT writes about education policy, with a focus on how the profession can take back ownership of its own destiny

Children’s Mental Health

There is good and bad news where children’s mental health is concerned. We have a better acknowledgement of the extent of mental illness amongst children and young people than ever before. We also have an emerging, albeit cautious, readiness to bring such issues out into the open. But the services that schools, families and children rely on are under pressure from rising demand, growing complexity and tight budgets.

It’s said that, on average, three children in every classroom have a diagnosable mental health issue. This is a much bigger problem than commonly acknowledged and a source of concern. It means it is not a 'specialist' issue but one that will affect every school on a regular basis. School leaders need a basic grounding in identification, intervention, sources of support and appropriate actions. Experience suggests that, done well, intervening early can help prevent problems in childhood growing into adulthood. There is much that can be done. 

NAHT is campaigning on mental health, after our members overwhelming called for this to be a key priority. Statutory Status for PSHE would be a step forward in this regard. This is a view shared by the Education Select Committee, who this week will be hearing from Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner. Improving mental health in children is central to her ‘Ambitious for Children’ document which sets out five key commitments from now until 2020. There is common ground between NAHT and the Children’s Commissioner. 

It’s important to focus in schools on mental wellbeing in general, as well as on intervention when children and young people may be developing a mental illness. Working with families is critical in both cases.

Schools are only part of the picture though, and depend upon timely and effective support from experts outside the school gates. Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) need to be adequately funded, but we know from members that in some areas services do not offer the support children need: often waiting times are too long and thresholds for intervention are set too high. Data is available from Young Minds to show that two thirds of local authorities had reduced their CAMHS budget between 2010 and 2013. The government has promised more funding, which is welcome, but we need to see if it is adequate to the scale of them problem. 

Schools need to be recognised for the significant and increasing role they are playing in supporting the mental and emotional health of their pupils. Results from the December 2014 Centre Forum survey on wellbeing and mental health in English secondary schools showed that 77 per cent of schools commission mental health services directly, in order to bridge the gap between school provision and those provided by external agencies. Our own Family Support Survey from May 2015 showed that over half of our members were dipping into their mainstream budgets to make up for services that used to be provided by other agencies.

The DfE has stated that: “Our strong expectation is that over time all schools should make counselling services available to their pupils” (Counselling in schools: a blueprint for the future, March 2015). Having counsellors is part of the solution; high quality training for teachers and school leaders to spot the early signs of mental health problems, and knowing where they should turn for help, is also required. Sometimes children want to turn to a teacher or leader they know and trust, and training needs to reflect this reality.

Schools are well-placed to offer support immediately when problems arise, particularly where family support might not be in place and to teach children the skills to cope with life’s problems, including knowing when to ask for help. But for this to be effective school staff must receive high quality training and clear guidance. 

NAHT offers training for members as part of our ongoing series of courses. This new course, developed exclusively for the NAHT, will explore mental health issues affecting children and young people in the current climate and is delivered by Dr Rona Tutt OBE and Professor Barry Carpenter OBE.

The PSHE Association, who we are working closely with in campaigning to make PSHE statutory, has launched valuable new primary and secondary lesson plans for schools preparing to teach children about mental health and emotional wellbeing. The lesson plans are designed to be used in conjunction with PSHE Association guidance, with topics including teaching children how to describe emotions, talk about anxiety and worries, and develop coping strategies. Lessons aimed at key stages 3 and 4 also cover eating disorders, self-harm and depression and anxiety. The resources are free to use.

We also work closely with the Youth Sport Trust, our charity partner for this year, as the links between physical activity and mental wellbeing are well known.

The work of Place2Be is also strongly recommended by NAHT. Many of our members use their services in their schools. We are presently surveying members about how children’s mental health is handled in their school. The results will be revealed at the start of Place2Be’s Children’s Mental Health Week from 8 – 14 February 2016. This is a partnership with NAHT, which will focus on the crucial role that schools can play in supporting children’s mental health and building their resilience.

06 January 2016