The cornerstones of character: Accountability

Written by: Matt Bawden | Published:
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The importance of good accountability in mental health and character education provision has been identified as one of the four cornerstones of best practice. Matt Bawden explores what this might look like

Two recent reports from the Department for Education (August 2017) have suggested that four cornerstones are important for successful in-school mental health and character education provision.

These are leadership, accountability, direction, and opportunity.

In my last article for SecEd (see further information), I focused on the cornerstone of leadership. In this article, the second in a series of four, I explore various elements of in-school provision that lead to effective accountability, enhancing both mental health and character education.

Accountability and enhancement

It is this connection, between accountability and enhancement, that is crucial. No-one ought to be saying we solely need accountability for Ofsted. Nor for appraisal, managing performance, or any of the multitude of measures the DfE seems fond of. Instead we need accountability to ensure our young people, and those who work with them, flourish in what many see as increasingly turbulent times.

If we are to be accountable for flourishing we must be sure we know what it is “to flourish”. Furthermore, it is clear schools are responsible for the mental health of both their staff and students, but to focus on the latter, without due consideration of the former, is a plan destined to produce failure.

Character education offers us some insight here. Taking an approach similar to that championed by the Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues, or as espoused in former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s recent book Taught not Caught, it becomes clear that it is hard for students to maximise wellbeing when staff are not given a similar amount of attention.

Both the Jubilee Centre and Nicky Morgan clarify the role that staff play in role-modelling. Time needs to be invested in staff in order for them to be better able to show those behaviours they wish their students to develop.

Among such behaviours are the performance virtues or qualities of determination and resilience so commonly discussed in relation to mental wellbeing, as well as the development of emotional literacy and the cultivation of good sense through use and habit.

Having a named lead

Having an identified senior member of staff, to hold others to account and in turn be held to account, provides clarity and oversight. If this person has a high level of knowledge and understanding that can be disseminated throughout the school environment then everyone can be clear about what is required.

Such awareness can cost, so it is important to look around before using limited school funds on courses. Often the best training can involve visiting similar schools and talking to other leads. Some counties and school clusters have networks for supporting best practice. These often revolve around subjects, or pastoral areas such as safeguarding. Increasingly schools are identifying social, emotional and mental health as an area where networking is essential.

If leads talk to each other, share what works, and just as importantly where things go wrong, then they will be far better equipped to be accountable. It does seem strange that almost every other area of school life, from data/results through to lunchtime supervision, will have a named lead, when something so crucial as mental wellbeing might not.

Having a named lead in turn means there is likely to be clear purpose as well as clear systems for recording what will happen in school and when.

If a person is to be accountable they are likely to take ownership. If I am aware others may question me around the school’s mental health provision I will want it to be something I believe in. I am likely to have designed a comprehensive strategy, a clear overview of what is already in place, and be in a position to discuss things with a range of audiences, from parents through to governors and inspectors.

With a plan in place the lead can be accountable for building trust and creating links between students, staff and others as appropriate.

The DfE reports are clear that such bridges are essential for good mental health provision. It is important to realise these links take both time and experience. Some links rely on the lead building a team, others require time to develop and time to deliver. One or two are outside the school’s control and relate to multi-agency work or the wider community having the capacity to offer adequate support. This can mean holding those we work alongside in external capacities to account.

Other challenges that are more in our day-to-day control can include a lack of internal capacity, allocation of funds, and colleagues’ knowledge and engagement. Each can be addressed by the lead, by following a clear four-step plan...

Review

Look at what is already in place. Celebrate all the great things that already happen. Make sure all stakeholders know how much is already being done. When you take people through it they will often be amazed at the everyday things that occur to make students happy, emotionally secure and resilient.

Action plan

Decide what needs doing, who will do it, how much it will cost, and a timeframe. To begin with there will probably be many things that can be improved. Trying to do everything at once may mean nothing gets done well. Having a lead who is accountable for this strategy will mean he/she can prioritise and work out who else might lead, what success will look like, and help them to assemble the staff, students, resources they will require.

Break it down

Break it down into manageable chunks, little things are easier to sort than massive projects. Accountability requires us to be clever with what we expect ourselves to actually achieve.

Introducing something like a wellbeing forum for staff might be a great ambition, but it could stretch on for a whole year. If instead we start with asking staff for their views on their social, emotional and mental health, and then whether a group might help to meet such needs, we have two shorter chunks that can both be achieved within a month. These can then be celebrated and progress acknowledged.

Often one of the most important early stages for good social, emotional and mental health is for everyone to realise that the school is not just coasting but is moving forward. In month two, some staff might be asked to set up a trial group/forum and see whether it addresses those needs. I will go into this example more in my next two articles (on direction and opportunity).

Repeat

If the lead has broken things down and changed one or two things, such as asking for staff voice around having a group/forum, then it might appear sensible to keep ploughing on. However, it is advisable to stop and take time to look back. Being accountable for such a wide brief it is possible to miss knock-on effects.

Asking for staff voice might show that your early work has already affected other areas. Trialing the group/forum may mean colleagues now feel more supported, or they may be actually more stressed. One member of staff may have felt encouraged by this process and set up something else; I have come across colleagues who have begun coffee groups and yoga clubs as a result. A quick look back should lead to a reassessment of what to do next.

External agencies

Even with all the above there can still be issues. One of the two DfE reports, Supporting Mental Health in Schools and Colleges, highlights the issues caused by a lack of single-point of contact for staff within external agencies, and the merits of schools having their own single-point of contact in return.

In fact, 68 per cent of the schools surveyed had their own single point of contact, but only
19 per cent said they could access a named external individual in return. For example, the report highlights in its case studies how having a named individual for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) builds relationships and provides valuable specialist support and guidance for schools.

Understandably schools with such a link reported far higher levels of satisfaction with the NHS than those without. It is therefore important to remember not everything is in your control. You can only be accountable for what you can control, sometimes you need to hold others to account instead. If there is no external single point of contact, and you feel there ought to be, then speak out.

Conclusion

Having worked in education for a long time, and being privileged to visit many great schools, I have yet to experience anywhere where things are perfect. In fact some of the best places are those where they know an area isn’t right but they are doing amazing things to try and sort it out.

Personally I would rather be accountable for mental health provision in a school that is trying to make things work, than one that is coasting along with adequate provision.

In my next article I will address this by looking at the next cornerstone: direction, namely the direction good social, emotional and mental health might take. I will also consider how a stand on character development might help.

  • Matt Bawden is an assistant headteacher at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Ashbourne and editor of the Association for Character Education eJournal Character Matters. Follow @ourschoolday. To read his previous articles and SecEd’s other best practice relating to character education, visit http://bit.ly/1OvQtqv. His next article is due to publish on March 1.

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