We are facing a mental health crisis in our classrooms. Children and young people face a huge range of pressures, from exam stress to cyberbullying to concerns about body image – and all the evidence suggests rates of anxiety and stress are on the rise.
That’s why we welcome the Government’s plans to introduce Relationship and Sex Education in all schools, covering mental health, relationships, and, crucially, how to navigate the online world in a way that’s positive and safe.
Young people we work with often talk about the benefits of social media, including access to a wealth of information and ideas and the ability to connect with people and find support. But they also highlight the pressures it can create – to be constantly available, to live up to the “perfect” lives that other people present, and to measure your life in terms of likes and reactions to what you post. We also know that children can be exposed to harmful content, like pornography or violent images, and that cyberbullying is far too common.
The new lessons could play a significant role in helping children navigate the online world, so they can recognise steps they can take to filter content, know what to do if they come across something that upsets them, and understand how their own actions online may affect other people. These lessons could also help children to recognise the signs of poor mental health in themselves and others, and learn how best to look for and provide support.
But, however welcome it is to have digital resilience and mental health on the curriculum, this is not the whole solution. Schools should be able to make positive mental health a priority in everything they do, not just in one lesson.
Right now, as most parents and teachers agree, the education system is unbalanced, with a far greater focus on exam results than on the wellbeing of children. Many schools do excellent work on wellbeing, but funding constraints, coupled with a lack of prominence given to wellbeing in the Ofsted inspection framework, mean that when schools face tough decisions about which services to cut, they are under pressure to prioritise other areas.
This needs to change. The Government’s recent proposals to introduce mental health support teams in schools as well as designated leads for mental health in schools are a step in the right direction – but these will be only be introduced in a quarter of the country over the next five years.
That’s why, through our Wise Up campaign, we are calling for a more fundamental rebalancing of the education system. We need children to know as much about looking after their mental health as they do about looking after their physical health, and we need give them the language to talk about what they’re feeling if they’re struggling to cope. That means that every teacher needs to understand about mental health, which should be a core part of initial teacher training.
We also need to ensure that all schools have support to make wellbeing at least as much of a priority as academic performance – which simply isn’t the case at the moment. That’s why the review of the Ofsted inspection framework next year must lead to a greater focus on wellbeing, alongside dedicated resources.
The vast majority of parents would choose a school where their child is happy over a school with better exam results – but the policy and inspection regimes do not reflect this.
While new lessons on mental health could make a difference, we need to see a more profound change.