Supporting good mental health

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

We do not have a mental health crisis – but there are problems enough that it should be a key priority, says Dr Bernard Trafford

I’m on a train to London for yet another meeting: all the way from Newcastle. It’s worth it, a meeting of a working group formed by HMC – the association of UK independent schools – to discuss wellbeing. Isn’t that way down the list of urgent national priorities, though? I don’t think so: nor does HMC, which is seeking to lead a national debate.

That territory is not without risks. When the independent sector first raised concerns about children’s wellbeing, banner headlines followed: “Mental health crisis in private schools”. We knew it would happen.

Yet the issue’s too important to allow us to soft-pedal for fear of over-reactions. On the contrary, the sector is using every opportunity it can – through sharing knowledge and best practice and even running regional and national conferences – to ensure that it works coherently with the maintained sector to tackle this problem.

A problem it certainly is. As soon as you dare to talk about it, journalists will ask whether there’s a crisis. There isn’t, not in such emotive terms: but the problem’s growing. We are certainly dealing with more cases, partly because they are multiplying, but also because schools are getting better at dealing with them. Children are readier to share their problems.

It’s a huge compliment to a school when a child who is self-harming asks someone in school, the adult they trust most, to help them tell their parents.

I find it humbling when I hear some of the personal, often heart-breaking issues that children just can’t bear to burden their parents with on their own: so they ask the school to help.

So, if the problems are so intractable, what can schools do? The answers are both reactive and proactive. We have to move beyond the stigma of mental illness, and we can certainly equip our workforce, teachers and other staff, to cope better. I’m a fan of Mental Health First Aid training for all staff who want it: currently a quarter of my staff are trained. Excellent training is coordinated by Mental Health First Aid England. Such teacher education, plus a more general understanding of the issues among the staff as a whole, renders teachers both more confident and more competent.

As for the proactive side, we must do more work nationally on building resilience. Education secretary Nicky Morgan has acknowledged this, not least in creating Character Awards for schools. I’m not a great fan of such badges, nor of “quick and easy” terms like “grit”. The best definition I’ve heard comes from Dick Moore of the Charlie Waller Trust. He describes resilience as “the ability to bend in the wind, rather than to snap in the hurricane”.

It’s no use just talking about it. I believe strongly that we can give children practice in building resilience through outdoor education, team sports, challenging drama, demanding music, debating and all those traditional and still highly valued extra-curricular activities. They are not “real-life” experiences of adversity: but they do give good practice for when the real thing hits.

Our classrooms are in many ways risk-averse nowadays. We structure our teaching and our children’s learning: we want to inspire them to find their own challenges, but too often we keep it safe and dependable while rigid, predictable exam mark criteria reinforce a perceived need to play safe. Yet it is coping with failure, when things go against us, that calls for true resilience: so we must provide appropriate experiences – more easily found when cold, wet and lost in the hills during a Duke of Edinburgh expedition than tussling with maths on Friday afternoons.

There’s no one answer: but there are many examples of good practice that we can use and share. I hope HMC’s working group will play its part.

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


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