The absence of the school safety net
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, which makes for an appropriate moment to acknowledge the potential and actual impact of COVID-19 on our pupils, our staff and our school leaders. The risk of a ripple effect on the mental health of individuals across all corners of society, with its very youngest members being at the brunt of the full long-term effects, is high. Governing boards will be considering how the vision, values, and culture of their organisation will meet the mental health challenges presented by COVID-19 to all members of the school community.
Increasingly aware and concerned for their own future, children and young people will already have, and will continue to experience an uprooting effect, for many, during the most crucial and transitional points in their education. Prior to the pandemic, 10% of pupils were considered to have a diagnosable mental health condition. A survey recently conducted by charity YoungMinds found that 83% of participants said the current situation has exacerbated their condition.
Our young people will undoubtedly feel unsettled amidst the ongoing impact of school closures and life under lockdown, worried about their friends, families, and communities. Vulnerable pupils, already carrying an exhausting weight on their shoulders, coping with instability, volatility or an existing condition need to be continuously supported through this time, especially in the absence of physical school systems. Schools represent something much more than a place to go and learn – school is a community in itself, a safe, comforting source of invaluable support. An absence of this support and the critical relationships it provides, is likely to exacerbate or even create new and complex issues.
Staff face an exhaustive challenge like no other, whilst much has been said on the physical protection we must provide staff as schools reopen to more pupils, the pressures of the job at hand must be met with a commitment to protecting their mental health at equal measure. Sinead McBrearty, CEO of Education Support Partnership told delegates at the 2019 NGA annual conference that teacher well-being rates are significantly lower than much of the rest of the population – and that was prior to dealing with a worldwide pandemic. In terms of headteachers, a staggering 84% self-reported themselves in a state of stress, again before the pandemic took hold.
Many executive leaders will have experienced weeks of back to back meetings, sleepless nights, working across evenings, weekends, and school holidays, deeply concerned for the wellbeing of their pupils and their staff. Teachers have valiantly faced the immediate challenge of learning a new way of doing things at an intense speed, often in isolation, while trying to do their absolute best for the young people they have such high hopes for. For many, the impact of seeing all their hard work, those countless hours of supporting their pupils to achieve their full potential, because they have so much belief and hope in them, will take a toll on their mental wellbeing. The emotional and mental impact of this horrible disease is not limited to one group of the schools’ community.
Mental health issues triggered or created because of the unprecedentedness of COVID-19, particularly anxiety or for individuals with neurodevelopmental differences, is something we as governors and trustees will be starting to think about. Our pupils, staff and leaders are essentially living through an education terrain none of their predecessors have experienced. For those children, unable to leave their home or rely on those crucial school relationships, both those provided through school staff and those provided just being round their school friends, will be at least unsettling and possibly detrimental to their health. Schools will also now be at the forefront of supporting the young people who have had a truly horrific lockdown experience, coping with the effects of trauma, bereavement, and other deeply impactful experiences, while many staff also try to come to terms with similar experiences.
What can governing boards do?
As a governing board, the pandemic has produced a key moment in time that tests your vision, values and ethos, possibly to the limits. Many governing boards will already be thinking of how they need to tweak, revise or even rewrite their vision and accompanying strategy going forwards. The values of the organisation will need space to shine like never before; this challenge goes beyond meeting a statutory duty and responsibility to ensure and promote the wellbeing and welfare of pupils. On a practical level, generally, schools are not required to have a separate standalone mental health policy, however this may be a timely moment to take a step back and consider whether it is time to devise one, and at the very least to question how inclusive of mental health issues our organisation is. If you are seeking to develop the vision itself, this will have a direct impact on your strategic plan and the school improvement plan. As you think about the upcoming academic year, governors and trustees should consider the need to incorporate how the school will continue to support mental health needs as well as including new complex cases which have arrived as a direct result of COVID-19 by:
- Undertaking a whole school approach to the monitoring of wellbeing policies and strategies. Whether this is through a standalone policy or combined policies, it should include a specific focus on the values embedded within the culture of the school/trust that recognises the mental health of pupils and staff that fundamentally promotes resilience.
- Ensuring that the focus on wellbeing takes an inclusive approach to ensure all pupils feel they have safe space to be open about their recent experiences, through promoting a listening culture
- Acknowledging the potential impact on mental health applies equally to staff. Staff will be coping with their own issues, potentially caused by COVID-19. Schools should seek external specialist support where necessary
- Ensuring, as much as is possible in these trying time, that pupils have access to a routine and structure and regular contact with school staff, which will provide them with a sense of normality and comfort. This is a time-consuming activity but crucial to monitoring pupil wellbeing.
- Providing confident, effective communication with families and the local community - a fundamental method for ensuring pupils are safe in their own environment. Leaders and boards may want to consider devising a strategy, particularly as schools re-open, for engaging with parents and receiving feedback.
- Ensuring that your school’s online safety policy reflects and acknowledges your current online provision delivery and how online interactions are monitored to ensure the safety of pupils, especially those who are vulnerable.
- Continuing the effective operation of support systems in a remote environment, making sure pupils have a clear and easy way to access staff. This might include signposting on your school website to where pupils and parents can get support.
- Ensuring that pupil voice is acknowledged as part of the policy – how do pupils feel about returning to school? Finding out what pupils are most worried about and how can your school realistically implement and monitor provisions to mitigate these worries.
This is not education, business or governance as usual. The entire sector is exploring new ways of adapting their roles in school, as governors and trustees will know. Trying to continue to aim for standards or educational goals for the school is an unattainable expectation, asserting this academic pressure on pupils can put additional strain on their mental health and ability to cope. Rather than focusing on measurables and attainment (which can be a priority for the board upon the return to school) and not demand too much from pupils and parents (who, lets remember, have not become trained teachers overnight) and focus on reducing the pressure in the home environment. Instead, focusing on building the nurturing role of the school and implementing this through the school’s values and vision for its pupils.