18/01/2016 09:57 GMT | Updated 18/01/2017 05:12 GMT

Academies and the Mental Health Crisis in England's Schools

The government is continuing to pursue its ambition to increase the number of England's schools that are academies. In August 2015, David Cameron said that he wanted to 'make every school in the country an academy', a sentiment reiterated by George Osborne in his most recent autumn statement. 25% of English schools are now academies, up from 2% less than five years ago.

But as the number of academies has grown, so too has the amount of variation in exactly what kind of services schools are required to provide to pupils. This will make it increasingly difficult for the government to respond to calls for things like better mental health provision in our schools.

The reason for this is that every time a new academy is set up, or an existing school converts to become an academy, it signs a contractual 'funding agreement' with the secretary of state for education. This sets out certain services that it must provide (for example, on food standards), and leaves open areas where the schools' leaders are able to innovate (for example, on parts of the curriculum, pay and conditions).

The result is that schools are required to provide very different services depending on what was included in their contract when they signed it. For example, the requirement to provide careers guidance has been inserted and removed from the academy funding agreements at various times over the last few years. So some academies are required to provide it while others are not, depending on when they became an academy or what terms they negotiated with government ministers

A new IPPR report argues that this means government has too little ability to set consistent minimum expectations for all schools.

Earlier this month, the Children's Commissioner - Anne Longfield - argued in favour of requiring all schools to employ a counsellor in order to help meet the growing crisis in the mental health of children and young people. Similarly, there is currently a petition calling for a requirement that mental health education becomes part of the national curriculum.

Both of these ideas could prove to be important steps in helping boost schools' capacity to promote wellbeing among pupils, and intervene early where problems do begin to surface. But it would be extremely difficult to introduce either within the current system of academy funding agreements - because most academies have already signed a contract that doesn't oblige them to offer these things. The government would have to pass legislation to override the existing contracts and require schools to employ a counsellor, or else find another way to impose this condition on schools.

The effect of this could be that government's push towards full 'academisation' results in increasingly patchy levels of schools-based mental health provision across the country. We already know that while some schools are taking proactive steps to meet pupils' mental health needs, others are far from viewing this issue as a priority. We need to raise the bar across the board, not expand the gap between the best and worst schools.

Government's ambition to create more academies therefore presents a vital opportunity to reform the system. Abolishing the system of funding agreements and replacing it with one where school freedoms and obligations are set out in legislation would be one way of doing this. It would ensure that all schools are required to provide the same fundamental features of a high-quality education, including prioritising pupils' mental health, and have the same freedoms to innovate to raise pupil outcomes.