Taking “Mens sana” for the nation’s children seriously at last

Stuart Nicholson, Principal of Cambridge Centre for Sixth-form Studies
Stuart Nicholson, Principal of Cambridge Centre for Sixth-form Studies

An awareness of the needs of children in terms of their mental health has at last gripped the nation’s consciousness. The whole idea of well-being has taken hold as a major concern of schools and there is a recognition at last that we have a mental health crisis in the classroom. It hardly seems surprising that a majority of teachers, according to the charity YoungMinds, think that exam results are prioritised over the mental health of schoolchildren and the charity is urging the government to tackle what it describes as a fundamentally unbalanced education system.

I have seen first-hand on many occasions the challenges that young people find in maintaining good mental health. This is faced by teenagers of all backgrounds, all nationalities, and in all types of school and it is very difficult to spot those most on the edge. At CCSS we have taken this issue very seriously for many years and have trained staff in mental health first aid, and we recognise that we need to provide that training much more widely.

The pressures which children and young people face vary from social pressures, to exam stress, to cyber bullying, to apprehension about their long-term future in an uncertain world. There is plenty of evidence that these pressures have grown over the last 20 years, and it seems likely that within schools the pressure for the schools themselves to demonstrate academic success, by whatever measure the government of the day is promoting at the time, leads inexorably to additional pressure on students.

The government is taking steps to address these concerns and the recognition by the Prime Minister of the “burning injustice of mental health and inadequate treatment that demands a new approach” must surely herald a change both in awareness and response. The vast majority of adult mental health difficulties begin before the age of 21 and there is clear evidence that investment in prevention and treatment for young people suffering mental ill-health is both effective and highly financially justified. The investment at this stage saves not only huge costs throughout the rest of a sufferer’s life, but can transform that life from one of suffering into one of joy.

A trial is to begin shortly with children as young as eight, to offer them mental health training in techniques such as mindfulness, which have a well-documented track record of success. I can vouch for this from personal experience, having found mindfulness techniques to be crucial in re-establishing my own mental equilibrium some years ago. I was delighted to read about this trial and as a committed enthusiast of the scientific method I am glad that it is to be measured to determine its effectiveness. I am not sure however if the government adviser, Lord Layard, was accurately quoted as saying “If you really want schools to take the wellbeing of their pupils as an important goal, there has to be a way of measuring that”. It read as though he intended adding this as yet one more pressure on schools to achieve, which in many respects seems to be the opposite of what is needed!

Other advisers are also in support of the proposals, with comments like “there has been a massive push to academia, results and school league tables and children’s personal social development has been left behind.”

One of the planned trials will involve specially trained teachers giving 13- to 15-year-olds 60-minute classes on the different types of mental illness and how to combat them. Another will give sessions by a trained instructor, lasting 45 to 60 minutes, focusing on collecting pupils’ attitudes. The third trial, of preventative programmes about wellbeing for children between Year 4 and Year 8, will involve 100 primary schools and 50 secondaries.

It is not just in the UK that such challenges are being recognised and addressed. Singapore is in top place in the international rankings for educational achievement, but wants its school system to focus much more on keeping students positive and resilient. Policies are moving away from an obsession with grades and entry to top schools, to put more emphasis on the importance of well-being, focusing on specific skills that assist students to build positive emotions, enhance personal resilience, promote mindfulness and encourage a healthy lifestyle.

It’s a search for the formula that children need in their education wherever they live on the globe.

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