“When did ‘wellbeing’ become a buzz word in the teaching profession”, I ask myself? I qualified 17 years’ ago and it has not always been a focus throughout my career. I was not trained in my PGCE year, my NQT year, nor as a Head of Year or as a Pastoral Senior Leader in strategies to support the mental health and wellbeing of my team nor my students.
In the last few years we have seen an increasing focus on wellbeing in society and an increasing pressure on schools to meet the wellbeing needs of the communities they serve. More so, to support the mental health needs of a generation of children.
As a Headteacher, I led a school with a holistic approach to education. We made choices in our school to create a culture of wellbeing and to create a universal entitlement for all. We worked with Dr Neil Hawkes and his team at Values-based Education to: curate an Inner Curriculum of mindfulness; to create safe spaces in our school with specialist provision such as a Nurture Room, a Thrive Room and an Art Therapy Room; to partner with national providers such as The Art Room, MHFA, Place2Be and Thrive. We trained staff to be Trauma-aware, and as Mental Health First Aiders and Thrive Practitioners.
Yet, despite this investment in our school and in our staff, we still struggled to meet the needs of our community. On a daily basis we had children in crisis in our school, on a weekly basis we were doing referrals to MASH and engaging external agencies, on a half-termly basis our Safeguarding Team reviewed our rates of referral, on a termly basis we reported our safeguarding statistics into our LEA and our MAT. We arranged supervision for our extensive safeguarding to mitigate the impact on their own mental health and wellbeing.
As Designated Safeguarding Lead in our Secondary School and then Deputy DSL in our Primary School I was fully exposed and acutely aware of the level of vulnerability in our community. I became increasingly frustrated at the lack of funding in county welfare, the turnover of staff in social care and the increasing pressures our team were under to keep our community safe. I vocalised these concerns, but it often felt like it fell on deaf ears.
Our team were driven to near breaking point on many an occasion during my tenure as Headteacher. Anxiety, self-harm, domestic abuse, substance abuse, suicide attempts have all been normalised as a reality of the extended responsibilities of our teaching profession. Moreover, with staff under an increasing pressure to meet the needs of our students, it sometimes felt that our own needs were less important. A failing on the system’s part when many teachers have their own wellbeing and mental health demons to face and process themselves.
Working with the Charlie Waller Trust we curated a series of regional training opportunities which brought together a cross-phase, cross-sector community of support. Harnessing the agency of those who attended we launched a regional Mental Health and Wellbeing Network which is still going strong.
My despair, however, at the education sector is that schools are becoming the one-stop shop for all of society’s failings. I trained to teach. I didn’t train to be a social worker, nor a nurse, nor a counsellor – each profession has its own unique training pathway and accreditation, but in the current system it feels like the buck stops with education. When will we acknowledge that the system is at breaking point? That something needs to give? That something needs to change?
World Mental Health Day is a spotlight each Autumn, as is Children’s Mental Health Week in the Spring. An opportunity to share best practice but equally an opportunity to reflect. As a profession, education is being pulled in all directions – the increasingly complex priorities of teachers, leaders and governors is unaided by the precarious nature of school funding.
I very much hope that in the next year as a system we become more proactive, preventative and pre-emptive to meeting the needs of the communities we serve and less reactive and responsive. A system-wide coordinated approach is needed to enable students, teachers and leaders to thrive.