The Department for Education and Skills’ five year strategy for children and learners is full of promise. It sets out a wide range of proposals to meet the educational needs of children and young people throughout the developmental spectrum, from early years right up until university.
Of course, major investment will be needed if these proposals are to become a reality. However, if they were all to come to pass, there is little doubt that the education of many children would be improved – and so too their mental health. Schools play such a crucial role in promoting the mental health of children, through establishing secure and stimulating environments and by providing teachers who can respond sensitively to children’s needs.
One of the strategy’s key proposals is for the development of independent specialist schools. These are likely to nurture more positive cultures, and benefit children’s mental health. Schools would be encouraged to take pride in their specialist areas and to build a stronger sense of identity. With greater freedom to run their own affairs, employ and train their staff, and set the general direction of the school, governors, teachers and any others involved may well take a more active ownership. With this in mind, schools may become better equipped to develop coherent and effective whole school policies on a wide range of matters, including difficult behaviour and bullying.
The DfES’s strategy also suggests making “a major commitment to staff development” with “high quality support and training to improve assessment, care and teaching”. Laudable as this sounds, there remains a question as to how far this support will include emotional support. It is becoming increasingly clear that the most creative learning takes place when pupils and teachers feel emotionally well. The National Healthy School Standard has a specific theme on emotional health and well-being and draws much of its direction from recent developments in emotional literacy and intelligence. Hopefully, the new specialist schools will take due heed of this standard.
In many respects, the government’s strategy is welcome news to all those interested in children’s mental health. However, a great deal will depend on how it is implemented. There is a danger that in the drive to increase the independence of schools, a new kind of competitiveness will creep in. This could have an unsettling effect and undermine schools’ efforts to build a positive ethos – impacting on the overall mental health of all those who work in them.
Peter Wilson is the former director of YoungMinds.