Mental health: A major step forward?

Written by: Dr Bernard Trafford | Published:
Dr Bernard Trafford, head, Royal Grammar School, Newcastle

The recent Select Committee report on mental health is welcome, but has one glaring omission and one worrying inclusion, says Dr Bernard Trafford

Last week, the Education Select Committee published its long-awaited report on children and young people’s mental health. There were no surprises. Nor should there have been: the matter is too pressing and too important to be delayed by prevarication or political in-fighting.

The report warns government about the effect of its own policies on children’s wellbeing: “Achieving a balance between promoting academic attainment and wellbeing should not be regarded as a zero-sum activity. Greater wellbeing can equip pupils to achieve academically. If the pressure to promote academic excellence is detrimentally affecting pupils, it becomes self-defeating. Government and schools must be conscious of the stress and anxiety that they are placing on pupils and ensure that sufficient time is allowed for activities which develop life-long skills for wellbeing.”

Elsewhere government is also admonished about the “adverse impact of funding pressures on mental health provision in schools and colleges, including the ability to bring in external support”. A Green Paper is promised for later in the year.

The report applauds the success of the recent pilot scheme linking CAMHS and education providers more closely, adding that “the variation in access for children and young people to timely assessment and support for mental illness is unacceptable”. It also urges the inclusion of mental health training in initial teacher training and on-going CPD, another crucial piece in the jigsaw.

The report also welcomes government’s commitment to making PSHE a compulsory part of the curriculum. Though I frequently deplore ministers’ propensity for shoehorning additional elements, however desirable, into the curriculum, PSHE needs to be there. Moreover, as the report also states, it should include “education on social media”.

This report should prove a major step forward. But I take issue with one unfortunate omission and also another damaging inclusion.

First, the committee makes little or no mention on the funding essential to effecting change. Yes, the report deplores cuts in funding. Nonetheless, it demands that schools achieve more without demanding the necessary resources. With teachers allowed ever-decreasing marking and preparation time, it’s hard to imagine how those already in post will find time to receive the envisaged training let alone to support children suffering from, or at risk of, mental illness. Indeed, nothing useful can happen without proper resourcing, training – and encouragement.

Second, the report falls into an old trap: “We welcome the inclusion of the personal development and wellbeing criteria in the Ofsted inspection framework.

However, it seems that insufficient prominence is being given to it by inspectors.”

Same old story. The committee asks itself “how can we ensure this happens?” It places no strictures on government: because it’s powerless, it cannot require ministers to deliver. Instead, it proposes using Ofsted as the stick to beat schools with.

It’s not merely crude and demoralising: it could prove worse than useless. As the report implies, this country doesn’t need one more pressure placed on its schools, driving them to pay lip-service to wellbeing issues or adopt quick fixes (sharp entrepreneurial operators out there will surely spot the business opportunity in supplying wellbeing services or training).

Mischievously, I could suggest disbanding Ofsted and devoting the space and money saved to wellbeing, its abolition alone contributing to quality of life in schools. That won’t happen: but it’s indicative of the state of education policy that a Select Committee has no more inspired idea of how to embed change than to employ Ofsted as its enforcer.

  • Dr Bernard Trafford is head of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School and a former chairman of HMC. His views are personal. Follow him @bernardtrafford


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