Case study: A compassion-based approach to pupil and staff wellbeing

Written by: Emma Lee-Potter | Published:
Illustration: iStock

The vice-principal of a Plymouth school and a clinical psychologist are working together to improve the wellbeing of students, staff and the local community using ‘compassion-based initiatives’. Emma Lee-Potter finds out more

The pressures on young people have never been greater. Rarely a week goes by without the publication of new evidence highlighting the challenges that today’s children and teenagers face in their lives, from low self-esteem and mental health issues to cyber-bullying and eating disorders.

A recent report by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), for instance, found that exam stress, social networking, peer pressure and an over-crowded curriculum are “inflicting enormous damage on our young people’s mental health”, while a YouGov survey of 11 to 24-year-olds reported that a third of youngsters lacked confidence.

Issues like these affect young people all over the country, but a Plymouth school that serves an area of high deprivation has introduced an innovative and proactive approach to tackle them.

Marine Academy Plymouth was set up in 2010 and is an all-through academy, with a nursery, primary school, secondary school and sixth form. The school’s stated mission is to alter students’ experience of education, to raise aspirations and to have a positive impact on the health and life chances of the whole community.

With these aims in mind, Marine Academy Plymouth is working with clinical psychologist Dr Mary Welford and Plymouth University (one of the school’s sponsors) to improve wellbeing throughout the school and beyond.

Vice-principal Kasim Langmead joined Marine Academy Plymouth in 2014 but has worked with Dr Welford for several years, looking at ways in which students’ mental health needs can be met within education settings.

They are particularly interested in compassion-focused therapy, which they describe as “generating psychological wellbeing for students, staff, parents and the wider community” and have co-authored a paper entitled Compassion-based Initiatives in Education Settings, which was published in Educational and Child Psychology earlier this year.

Compassion-focused therapy was developed by psychologist Paul Gilbert and in their paper Dr Welford and Mr Langmead cite his definition – that compassion is a quality that “aims to nurture, look after, teach, guide, mentor, soothe, protect, offer feelings of acceptance and belonging in order to benefit another person”.

Mr Langmead’s interest in compassion-based initiatives started at his previous school, where his role involved ensuring that students’ needs were met both pastorally and academically.

He realised, however, that young people’s need for support and counselling was so great that relying on over-stretched mental health and counselling services or contracting clinical psychologists to give one-to-one help was not always feasible.

“We ended up with a huge backlog of students who needed to be seen,” he said. “We had to acknowledge that it was pretty expensive and pretty much impossible to meet the level of need year -on-year.

“Because of the breadth of need we realised it was more about system change. It was much more about doing things on a greater scale to meet the demand and make it sustainable. So we looked at a whole-school approach that could sustain mental health and wellbeing – for students and staff as well.”

Dr Welford has introduced and helped to develop compassion-based initiatives at a number of other schools, including a pupil referral unit in Reading, and readily agreed to help.

“In a school there will always be a need for one-to-one provision,” she said. “But as the NHS becomes more squeezed we are finding that people’s requirements to access services seem to be getting higher and higher. What we are trying to do here is to develop a whole-school approach and ethos, where everybody is a stakeholder.”

Dr Welford and Mr Langmead began their project at Marine Academy Plymouth in 2014. First of all they focused on getting the teachers and support staff on board. Their view was that staff wellbeing and student wellbeing are inextricably linked and that by asking staff to adopt an empathetic, compassionate and reflective approach to their roles it would help staff and pupils alike.

“The analogy we often refer to is that if you are in an aircraft and there is a change in pressure the first thing you do is put on your own oxygen mask and then you help somebody else,” said Dr Welford.

“If you are asking staff to tune into and put themselves in the shoes of some of the students here we need to make sure they have the resilience within themselves to be able to do that. It would be wrong of us to ask staff to do all this without being mindful of the impact on their own wellbeing.”

During a staff INSET day at Marine Academy Plymouth, Dr Welford gave a 90-minute presentation on compassion-based approaches – “waking people up with a call to compassion, looking at the benefits of it and looking at the problems associated with it if we inhibit it”.

Other initiatives have included seeing staff for consultations, running a compassion-focused therapy group with the sixth form, breathing and mindfulness sessions, and exercises focused on understanding students’ behaviour.

Mr Langmead also organised a staff wellbeing week – for teachers, support staff and contractors – at the school in July. As he wrote on his school blog: “Our initial experiences suggest (no surprise) that staff wellbeing and student wellbeing are intrinsically linked and that the wealth of need is such that the reliance on a one-to-one service in schools is unsustainable. Therefore, we are looking to build and share ideas, models and strategies that will enable schools to develop a sustained and integrated culture of wellbeing.”

During the staff wellbeing week each day was focused on one of the NHS’s Five Steps to Mental Wellbeing – connect, be active, keep learning, give to others and be mindful. Activities included a walk, cream tea and staff appreciation session.

“Just acknowledging with the staff that the school recognises the pressures and stresses of their role and values their wellbeing itself improves staff wellbeing,” said Mr Langmead.

“The activities we did during that week – connecting with each other, showing appreciation, sharing knowledge and skills, staying active – are things that help to ease the pressures in the workplace. Our idea is that these should be long-term, embedded practices within the staff.”

In Compassion-based Initiatives in Education Settings, Dr Welford and Mr Langmead also highlight some of the ways in which they have involved pupils and parents in the approach.

These have included the development of a specific drama group, mindfulness walks, art displays and parents’ coffee mornings.

“Action can take many forms, from physical support, the provision of staff training and taking responsibility (when appropriate), through to the act of showing patience and the maintenance of an open mind,” they wrote in their paper.

“When we engage with a compassionate frame of mind we practise the attributes of sensitivity, sympathy, empathy, distress tolerance, care for wellbeing and non-judgement.”

They also cited the example of a 13-year-old girl “who repeatedly pushes boundaries at school”, is late, uses her phone in class and engages in low-level disruption.

“It is known that there are difficulties at home,” they added. “Is the compassionate response to say ‘there, there’ and make allowances for her?

“Alternatively, is the compassionate response to be consistent with the application of the school’s behaviour policy, while also taking time to speak with her about her behaviour, discuss strategies that may be helpful and, if appropriate, have a discussion with her family?”

Staff and students have responded positively to the approach. Indeed, in their paper Dr Welford and Mr Langmead said that informal feedback from schools using the initiative pointed to an increase in staff wellbeing, a decrease in sickness, increased parental engagement with school, and fewer instances of low-level disruptive behaviour or fixed term exclusions.

During the coming year Dr Welford and Mr Langmead will carry out a more formal evaluation of the impact the programme has had on the achievements and aspirations of pupils at Marine Academy Plymouth with academics from Plymouth University.

“The team will be embedded in the academy for the year,” said Mr Langmead.

“We will be looking at how you can meet the needs of all members of the academy on one level and the needs of the students who are most in need of support on another, as well as how this dovetails with the wellbeing of the staff and the community.

“I think that this collaboration is unique. Having worked closely with the NHS and in practice, Mary has brought the clinical aspect to the project and I am bringing the school aspect of it. So it’s not Mary working from an isolated clinical perspective and it’s not simply me coming up with ideas as a school leader. We are working closely to make sure that we see this from a teaching and learning perspective, a school’s perspective, and a clinical perspective.”

  • Emma Lee-Potter is a freelance education writer.

Further information

Marine Academy Plymouth:


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