During a recent Guardian roundtable, where we were part of a group of experts talking through solutions to the growing problem of mental health in this country, it struck me, not for the first time, how much we expect of our schools.
Teachers could very well be spending more time over a year with children and young people than their parents do: the influence of our education system cannot and should not be underestimated.
One of the participants – a leader in the field of education – began a thought-provoking discussion about education and the role it plays in children’s lives. He said he felt that the UK does not have a philosophy of education anymore, that somehow we needed to redefine what this is in Britain. Is education for attainment alone or do we have a moral responsibility to gear our young people up for the challenges they may face as young adults – especially in relation to their mental health?
There was agreement around the table that if we are committed to early intervention, education is one place to start, and that essentially, emotional wellbeing has to become as important as academic achievement. This means making it part of the curriculum, the culture and, importantly, providing teachers with the right support to make it happen.
According to the Young Minds activist – also at the roundtable – young people need educating on mental health problems so they can identify them. This lack of awareness, she said, often leads to anxiety, which can escalate.
There is a lot of work to do to get education right, but we need to begin with an agreed statement of its purpose.
There is, however, hope on the horizon.
The fact that the Education and Health Committees recently published a joint report is a sign that the departments acknowledge that they are intrinsically linked.
The report stated: “Achieving a balance between promoting academic attainment and well-being should not be regarded as a zero-sum activity”. It acknowledged that if pupils have greater well-being, then their academic performance is positively affected. We now need them to put their money where their mouth is.
Future in Mind spoke about investing in training teachers to identify emerging mental health issues. It also identified the need to provide each school with a single point of contact for mental health services, and to include keeping safe online and cyber bullying in the curriculum. Again, this is something the Young Minds activist said added to the pressures felt by pupils and students, saying, “With social media, the bullying comes home with you…your public life never ends.”
So while we have articulated the issues and talked of the urgency, what we now need to see is action. I hope that the joint report is a sign of joined-up thinking when it comes to health and education. I also hope that an articulation of a philosophy for education in this country – which should include a commitment to reducing inequalities and taking into account the importance of mental health – is at least a step closer.
Elaine Bousfield, founder and chair, XenZone