Date: 04/02/21
By Alan Hardie, CEO at NCEAT.

It’s a very long time since I was a pupil, but I can’t ever remember a time at school when anyone spoke about the idea of mental health. At that time, there was a complete stigma around mental illness and it wasn’t a topic of conversation at school or home. Even when starting my teaching career in the early 1990s, mental health didn’t seem to feature highly on the agenda during my PGCE or in school CPD.

Since then, I believe that the quality of our education system has improved significantly. Arguably, this has been mainly internally driven by the profession itself. One key change is the raised profile of mental health and wellbeing amongst school communities. While we can and must do more to support this; there has certainly been a sea change in attitudes towards mental health in schools.

All of us can drift from good mental health to illness along a continuum, in the same way we do so with our physical health. Pressures and stresses in our lives can act as catalysts for these movements and in a ‘normal’ school year we are aware of some the potential trigger points here, such as exams or transition. Some of the underlying pressures on mental health are structural within our current education system. I could write an entire blog on how all or nothing terminal exams and the high stakes accountability system have an incredibly negative impact on pupils and staff. If we add the impact of Covid-19 then we face an unprecedented pressure on our mental health.

How do we tackle this? Firstly, let’s avoid the narrative in some parts of the media that the last 12 months have utterly destroyed the education of a generation of children. When the previous lockdown ended I was proud of the resilience shown by our pupils and their desire to make up for lost time. Staff have worked incredibly hard to support them with this. As a profession, the progress made on remote learning, without clear direction from above, has been immense. Most pupils are completing more and better quality work. If we recognise and build upon the positives we’ve achieved since last March, we significantly reduce the chances of the negativity becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

There are many improvements schools could make to mental health support if only we had sufficient resources. I would love each school have its own counsellor to support pupils in need. However in a post-Covid environment it seems unlikely that schools will be given the resources we need to achieve this. What we definitely can do is to focus on low cost, high impact solutions and generating the right culture so that we can talk openly about issues, identify problems and find the best ways to tackle them.

As someone who has spent most of their career in secondary education, moving to an all-through trust has convinced me that we need to ensure the key building blocks for good mental health are in put in place in primary school. At NCEAT, the investment we’ve made in Thrive training for our staff to help support the social and emotional development of our children has been crucial to helping our pupils become more emotionally resilient. In a catchment with high levels of disadvantage, taking a more trauma sensitive approach to meeting the social and emotional needs of our children is reaping rewards.

Our NCEA Warkworth C of E Primary School is working towards Silver Mental Health and Wellbeing Awards with Leeds Beckett University and the Silver Better Health at Work, focusing on making sure that the culture of promoting good mental health for all of their community is at the heart of all that they do.

I’m in no doubt that, as a trust, we are still in the early stages of our journey to ensure that we support good mental health across our school communities, but we have recognised this as a key priority in our trust five year development plan. As with most journeys, the first steps are the most important and for me that is about creating a culture where our community is comfortable talking, listening and empathising. In the post-Covid world, getting the right culture for mental health may just be the most important step we take as school leaders to support our communities on the road to recovery.