Government advice on mental health in our schools

Mental health is a topic that’s come to the fore in recent years, as our understanding of it has improved, and most schools will have students who need mental health support. In November the DfE released its report Mental health and behaviour in schools as non-statutory advice to support students whose mental health problems manifest in behaviour. While once this issue might have been misunderstood, there are now responsibilities and processes in place to help those struggling with these issues. We looked into the DfE report to find out what schools are now responsible for and what measures they’re being encouraged to take

Schools’ responsibilities
The report makes clear that, ‘Schools have an important role to play in supporting the mental health and wellbeing of their pupils by developing approaches tailored to the particular needs of their pupils. All schools are under a statutory duty to promote the welfare of their pupils, which includes preventing impairment of children’s health or development and taking action to enable all children to have the best outcomes.’
It advises that early intervention to identify issues is crucial, and summarises the school’s role as:

  • Prevention: creating a safe environment and equipping pupils to be resilient. This will include teaching students about mental wellbeing.
  • Identification: recognising emerging issues.
  • Early support: helping pupils access evidence-based support.
  • Access to specialist support: working with external agencies to provide access to support and treatment.

While there is no requirement for schools to have a standalone mental health policy, or expert, they are required to produce a range of policies which can be used to promote mental health and wellbeing.
Creating a whole school culture
Key to student wellbeing is the environment of the school. The report points out that, ‘Environments that are hostile, aggressive, chaotic or unpredictable can be harmful to mental health, and can lead to stressful teaching and working conditions.’
It advises that a whole school approach is needed – one which reaches beyond the classroom and into all aspects of school life, including:

  • Culture, ethos and environment: the wellbeing of students and staff is promoted through the ‘informal’ curriculum, including leadership, school policies, values and attitudes, together with the social and physical environment.
  • Teaching: develop students’ knowledge about health and wellbeing.
  • Partnerships: proactive engagement with families, outside agencies and the wider community, to promote consistent support.

The report stresses that school leadership teams should create a culture of calm and set out their vision for the school. This means establishing clear behaviour expectations that are consistently conveyed throughout the whole school community.
Embedding the culture
Advising on steps to establish this culture, the report advises that school leadership teams ensure that:

  • students are committed to the school vision;
  • the school emphasises the importance of mental wellbeing;
  • it has a rigorous behaviour policy;
  • it takes measure to prevent bullying.

In addition, it points out that, ‘The leadership team is responsible for determining the training needs of their staff within their approach to school improvement, professional development and performance management…The leadership team should promote continuous professional development to ensure that staff are aware of some common symptoms of mental health problems, what is and isn’t a cause for concern and what to do if they think they have spotted a developing problem.’
It goes on to emphasise the need to have properly thought through procedures in place, and the importance of schools working collaboratively with others. ‘Clear systems and processes should be in place to help staff who identify possible mental health problems, providing routes to escalate issues with clear referral and accountability systems. Schools should work closely with other professionals to have a range of support services that can be put in place depending on the identified needs (both within and beyond the school).’
As the evidence relating to, and our understanding of, mental health issues and behaviour in schools increase, the role and responsibility of school leadership teams in this area is about to evolve. It seems that schools are set to take an ever-increasing role in ensuring the wellbeing of children.
You can read the full report and up-to-date advice here.
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