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New research on mental health support and character education

The Department for Education (DfE) has recently released two pieces of research focusing on pupil well-being in schools. The first is an assessment of the available mental health support for pupils in schools, and the second looks at the provision of character education and skills. See below for summaries of each research piece and links through to the full reports.

Supporting mental health in schools and colleges

This research was commissioned by the DfE to provide learning about how schools and colleges are supporting the mental health needs of children and young people, with the purpose of informing the focus of policy action on mental health and character education in schools and colleges in England. The research consisted of a mix of surveys and case studies of schools, colleges and PRUs followed by workshops at the DfE to consolidate findings.

How do educational institutions understand their role in supporting pupils' mental health?

  • The priority schools and colleges attached to their approach to mental health support varied depending on the size, type and phase of the educational institution and the perceived mental health needs of their pupils
  • Roles varied from promoting mental well-being to referring to and/or delivering specialist therapeutic provision

What do institutions do to promote positive mental health and well-being among their pupils?

  • Almost all (92 per cent) institutions reported having an ethos or environment that promoted mutual care and concern, and the majority (64 per cent) felt the promotion of positive mental health and well-being was integrated into the school day
  • Activities included skills development sessions, taught sessions about particular mental health issues and sessions to raise awareness of how and where pupils can access support

How do institutions identify pupils with particular mental health needs?

  • Ad hoc identification by staff was by far the most commonly used method of identification (used by 82 per cent of institutions)
  • Other methods included making use of information from external services or previous schools (76 per cent), and administrative data collected for other purposes (50 per cent), such as attendance or attainment records 
  • Alternative providers and pupil referral units (AP/PRUs) were more likely to carry out universal screening (46 per cent) and targeted screening (31 per cent) than mainstream schools

What support do institutions offer for pupils with identified needs?

  • The most common types of support offered for pupils with identified mental health needs were educational psychological support (61 per cent) and counselling services (61 per cent)
  • More clinical forms of support, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) (18 per cent) and clinical psychological support (14 per cent), were much less commonplace; they were, however, more prevalent in specialist settings

How do institutions fund their provision?

  • Almost all institutions funded provision for pupils with identified mental health needs at least in part from their own budgets
  • Institutions were often faced with difficult decisions about managing their budget, including whether to prioritise spending on supporting academic, special educational or mental health needs

What plans and policies are in place to support mental health provision?

  • The majority (87 per cent) of survey respondents reported their institution had a plan or policy in place about supporting pupils with identified mental health needs
  • Less common were plans and policies about promoting positive mental health and well-being among all pupils; more than half (58 per cent) of respondents did, however, report having such a policy

How do institutions work with external services to support pupils' mental health?

  • Most commonly used sources of information were local public health teams and/or local authorities (74 per cent), specialist mental health services (73 per cent), DfE's guidance (59 per cent) and mental health organisations (57 per cent)
  • Institutions also referred pupils to a number of specialist mental health services, including NHS or other specialised children and young people's mental health services (CYPMHS) (93 per cent), GPs (73 per cent) and other specialist voluntary or independent services (53 per cent)

What challenges do institutions face?

  • Perceived major barriers to setting up mental health provision were difficulties in commissioning local services (74 per cent) and a lack of funding (71 per cent)
  • A lack of internal capacity was also a commonly reported barrier (59 per cent)
  • One-quarter (26 per cent) of institutions highlighted a lack of engagement among pupils and/or parents/caregivers as a barrier to mental health provision. There were reports of difficulties in engaging pupils and their parents/carers who either did not acknowledge they had a problem or were reluctant to seek or receive help

What do institutions think is key to success?

  • Creating a shared vision and understanding about the approach to supporting mental health
  • Supporting the mental health needs of staff as well as students
  • Having a senior member of staff to drive the agenda forward in terms of the mental health support a school provides
  • Developing a clear process to follow when staff were concerned or had something specific to report
  • Building relationships between trained support staff and young people to establish trust and help them work effectively together

Developing character skills in schools

The DfE commissioned this research to understand how schools in England currently develop desirable character traits among their pupils, and to explore their experiences of this. The research was predominantly survey based with the addition of supplementary case studies to add qualitative data.

Key findings

How do schools understand their role in character education?

  • Almost all (97 per cent) schools sought to promote desirable character traits among their students; however, fewer (54 per cent) were familiar with the term 'character education' prior to being approached to take part in the research

What motivates schools to seek to develop positive character traits?

  • Schools primarily aimed to develop character to promote good citizenship (97 per cent) and academic attainment (84 per cent). Across all school types, the character traits most highly prioritised were honesty, integrity and respect for others
  • Less importance was placed on curiosity, problem-solving and motivation, but these traits were still a high priority for more than two-thirds (68 per cent) of schools

What activities and approaches do schools use to develop positive character traits?

  • Almost all (97 per cent) had a mission statement or set of core values intended to contribute to character education. Assemblies (92 per cent) and subject lessons (89 per cent) were both used to develop desirable character traits among pupils by the vast majority of schools
  • A significant minority (41 per cent) of schools offered distinct character education lessons. In addition, almost all (97 per cent) schools used extra-curricular activities to develop character traits such as sports and/or performance arts clubs, outward bound activities, hobby clubs and subject learning clubs

What institutional processes are in place to support character education?

  • Fewer than one in six (17 per cent) schools had a formalised plan or policy in place for character education, and only one-quarter (25 per cent) of schools had a dedicated lead for character education. In most cases, this role was typically fulfilled by a head teacher, deputy head teacher or other members of the senior leadership team
  • Nevertheless, the qualitative follow-up found that schools without formalised policies were able to point to other documents that evidenced their approaches to developing certain character traits

What challenges do schools face?

  • The biggest barriers for schools seeking to provide character education centred on competing demands on staff time and capacity
  • Although other challenges and barriers - such as a lack of engagement from pupils or parents, and a lack of knowledge or information - were reported in the survey, these were only experienced by the minority of schools

What do schools think is key to success?

  • Successful character education was felt to depend on a clear vision and a whole-school approach that are embedded across the curriculum
  • It needed to be driven forward by strong leadership, and delivered and modelled by staff with the appropriate skills, time and access to activities that could be tailored appropriately to the needs of students.


First published 05 January 2018