Addressing parents at our introductory evenings for the start of the new academic year, I mentioned at the outset that the most important thing was for their children to feel happy at school, because if they were feeling unhappy and stressed then they would not be able to make the most of all that is on offer or fulfil their potential, or indeed enjoy life outside of school to the full.
In the informal part of the proceedings, several parents thanked me for focusing on the happiness and welfare of their offspring, rather than talking about examinations and results.
SecEd’s editor, Pete Henshaw, has made young people’s mental health a priority focus for this year (see http://bit.ly/1nwHj0q). The pressures which today’s young people are facing are huge, not just those of possible unemployment, student debt, academic pressure, body image, peer pressure, sexting, cyber-bullying, self-harming, but also worries about the big issues – the environment, the future of our planet, and whether we are heading for another war.
They live their lives in a very public way, sometimes with almost their every move recorded via social media and judged by others. Staff in schools are trying their best to support students who are troubled, but support from mental health services is difficult to access and involves a very long wait. When we hear of what has been happening to young girls in places such as Rotherham, we also become aware that young people are often not listened to or taken seriously by other professional groups.
“Resilience” and “mindfulness” are buzzwords now in our schools and we do our best to develop such characteristics in our students, but we have a host of other obligations to fulfil too, including helping them to achieve their potential academically and being prepared for the world of work.
Education services were combined with children’s services some time ago, but the merger seems to have led to cuts and economies rather than a stronger, more comprehensive provision. Mental health services remain the Cinderella area, with limited funding which is continually being reduced still further.
Who is actually taking any responsibility for young people’s physical and mental wellbeing? We are told that today’s young people are unfit, with many becoming obese and diabetic, while relatively smaller numbers suffer from anorexia. Childhood depression is also becoming quite commonplace. Self-harming is becoming normalised, with videos by pop stars and others glorifying the practice. We have unleashed a monster in the form of the internet and no-one seems able to control or police its content.
How can we as secondary schools respond to all of this? To what extent should we be the frontline? Where do families and GPs fit in? We are all judged on the performance of our students in public examinations and on the progress that they make; this could be said to be the core business of all our schools.
However, I am sure that most of us would agree that if our students have complex needs which prevent them from being happy and achieving what they might in all aspects of their lives, then that is actually a more important problem than EBacc percentages or such-like.
If those young people’s needs were properly and promptly met and they were given effective strategies for coping, then they would indeed have a better chance of doing their best, not only at school, but throughout their whole lives. Should this not be a government priority?
So, I offer my total support to Pete’s campaign. Politicians, please make young people’s wellbeing a priority and provide the experts and resources that we need in schools; we will certainly play our part, but we have been trained as educators, not mental health professionals. Our students need to be at peace with themselves in order to focus fully on learning and on enjoying all the experiences we offer.
Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London.