Groundbreaking Mental Health study based in the North East

20th January 2023

The Healthy MindED Commission, powered by Schools North East,  published The Voice of the Pupil: Understanding Mental Health in Schools in December 2022. This unique study, described by Commission Chair Professor Dame Sue Bailey as ‘unique’ and ‘representing the most important body of evidence about children’s own views about their mental health, wellbeing, and resilience ever carried out in the UK’, offers educators a new way to approach students’ mental health and properly understand the needs of young people in their schools.

Recent roundtables with North East school leaders have shown a lack of Educational Psychologists and a backlog of mental health services putting massive pressure on schools across the region. Due to the lasting effects of the pandemic, this report and its findings are more relevant than ever and a key tool for connecting with students during this exceptionally difficult time. The ground-breaking research shines a light on the issues facing students and the strategies they use to cope with mental health challenges. It also provides recommendations that include low-cost/ no cost actions that schools can implement effectively themselves.

You can read the report here, and the academic report here. We will also be hosting a webinar on the report on 8 March.

Healthy MindED

In 2016, Schools North East set up the Healthy MindED Commission to bring together school leaders and mental health practitioners to consider how best to tackle growing challenges around emotional health and wellbeing. Although children’s mental health is often researched and discussed, we seldom see reports from the perspective and viewpoint of the young people in question.

Voice of the Pupil

One of the main strands of the Healthy MindED Commission was the ‘Voice of the Pupil’ project (VoP).  This engaged children and young people to establish their concerns and experiences, giving the region’s pupils a voice to inform direct action in schools that would positively affect outcomes for young people.

The aim of the project was to let the pupils and young people be an effective voice for themselves and tell us what the stresses, strains and also positives were in their lives, the state of their mental health, and how they were supported and found resilience. This process then would give insight into the factors affecting the mental health of children and young people in the North East.

Colin Lofthouse, one of the VoP researchers and CEO of Smart Multi Academy Trust, said:

“We needed a robust and consistent way for schools to ensure they captured that voice so that context specific knowledge about their own pupils could be used for analysis and also to create bespoke ways to address the needs. The method needed to be simple and replicable across all settings primary, secondary and special.”

Within the process, Colin discovered that:

“Primarily pupils are our greatest resource and listening to them was the key to greater understanding and designing a solution to support them that was not just off the peg but tailored to their needs. We found that it is difficult to listen to children in a deep and meaningful way and that staff need training and the VOTP method to help them reveal the themes and complexity in the different factors which contribute to children and young people’s feelings of wellbeing. We were surprised to find that children and young people’s depth of thought and self-realisation is profoundly more complex than we give credit for. Anxiety can come from many different life experiences and all children have insecurities and anxieties.”

More than 250 pupils took part in the focus groups. In the process, young people opened up about the impact and importance of relationships. They said that they would like to participate more in their lives, make positive contributions and be recognised as individuals. They regularly expressed a sense of pressure and strain in relation to the expectations others have of them.

The Voice of the Pupil report presents the findings of these groups, and some of the actions taken by participating schools. Each school that participated gained a valuable analysis about the scale, themes, and potential protective factors in place that were unique to their own context and school. The value of the methods used was exemplified through the range of creative and practical steps taken by schools in development and school improvement plans as a consequence of the project.

Mental Health impact on North East Schools

The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Children’s Mental Health Report by Child Mind Institute found ‘55% of children felt more “sad, depressed or unhappy’. Schools and other agencies are struggling with significant backlogs, with long waiting lists for educational psychologists, children and young people’s mental health services (CAMHS), and educational, health, and care plans (EHCPs).

A Schools North East roundtable in December, with MAT CEOs from across the North East covering both primary and secondary schools, highlighted that schools are trying to keep on top of a range of behavioural challenges that have arisen or worsened considerably since the pandemic. However, they expressed deep concerns that financial pressures on schools are limiting what provision they can offer.  Additionally, Local Authorities have fewer educational psychologists to support schools, and so schools are looking for external support. This is costly, and with some Local Authorities withdrawing educational psychologist support, there is a risk that a postcode lottery in SEND provision will develop.

Similarly a roundtable in late November with Richard Holden MP and school leaders from the North West Durham constituency also found other agencies that support children and young people are far from being back to ‘normal’.  School leaders particularly commented on long waiting lists in health and social care, the immense pressures on the high needs block, and a lack of consistent support. Schools are having to carefully consider referrals, as it is not clear what support will be available.

Educational Psychologist support was a particular issue, with reports of EPs being unavailable for another two academic terms as they work to clear backlogs in the system; some waiting lists for support services were reported as being up to 3 years. Schools expressed rising concern that less significant problems were becoming severe problems because of the lack of timely appropriate support for children.

Schools North East’s Autumn 2022 ‘State of the Region’ survey highlighted the challenges schools face in respect of student wellbeing. Over 60% of schools said that there are more behaviour related challenges than pre-pandemic. Almost 80% of schools said that students are not ‘stage ready’, with increased challenges around anxiety, persistent absence, resilience, and social and emotional preparedness.

Younger students, those with SEND, and those from disadvantaged backgrounds have been disproportionately impacted. The pandemic has highlighted the vital role schools play in supporting student mental health and wellbeing. The promotion of good mental health and the wellbeing of pupils has long been a focus for school leaders in the North East. Rather than create new challenges, school closures during the pandemic merely exacerbated perennial challenges around mental health.

From ‘their own voices’

With a clear lack of support for schools, and an unclear timeline on returning to ‘normal’, The Voice of the Pupil can be used as a key tool for schools to approach understanding the challenges facing their students.

Healthy MindED commission Chair Professor Dame Sue Bailey said the study is ‘unique’ and has said that ‘it represents the most important body of evidence about children’s own views about their mental health, wellbeing, and resilience ever carried out in the UK.’

Colin Lofthouse added:

“Much is written about the poor mental health of children and young people in our schools today, most of it by adults. The Voice of the Pupil study is compelling as the results and conclusions come directly from their own voices. What they told us certainly gives cause for concern but also hope, as despite the pressures they face in today’s society, they have remarkable coping strategies. The Voice of the Pupil study shines a light on what they are, and also how schools should listen and learn from the pupils themselves.’

The report recommends building greater capacity in the system with closer working between schools and external agencies, more regular engagement with young people to develop understanding of what can be done to support good mental health, and an approach to curriculum delivery that ensures tasks and tests are achievable, enjoyable, and rewarding.

Actions and recommendations

The schools that took part in The Voice of the Pupil also had to engage with SLT and governors in their institutions and create an action plan to address some of the issues the pupils raise.

The content of the action plans was as varied as the schools themselves.

Colin stated:

“One primary school who realised the importance of pets as a supportive and factor for resilience when pupils were stressed and anxious decided to ensure every classroom was to have a pet that the pupils could look after, interact with and care for.”

Some key themes identified in the varied school action plans included:

Improving opportunities for pupils to feel valued and able to contribute
Curriculum and Learning
Facilitating the building of strong relationships
Ensuring supportive environments
Staff development, confidence and connectedness
Pupil voice and participation agendas
The report found that there are many low-cost/no cost actions that schools can confidently commit to using to improve student mental health and school environments. They include:

Regularly engaging with young people to develop understandings of what can be done to support good mental health. This can be achieved through focus groups; PSHCE and targeted workshops on relevant topics.
Capacity building through professional development for school staff; outside professional supervision/support for staff and the introduction of support for parents.

Developing an approach to curriculum delivery that ensures tests and tasks are enjoyable, rewarding and achievable by managing pressure talk; appreciating effort; avoiding comparison and judgement where possible and remembering the importance of creativity, rest and recovery.
Prioritising support for those who need it, remembering that young people often prefer to receive support from people they are familiar with.
Working more closely with outside agencies as part of a joined-up mental health system.
Considering technology as something to help young people manage their day-to-day lives as well as recognising the need to manage it when it is having an unhelpful impact.
Managing change and transition, which can be extremely unsettling for young people.
Finally and perhaps the most significant recommendation that arose from the project was the necessity to promote the idea of caring relationships as central to all interactions. ‘Slow down, show interest, notice, listen, relate’.

You can read the report here, and the academic report here. We will also be hosting a webinar on the report in early March.

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