There is nothing like a cross sector workshop dedicated to a ‘whole school approach’ to get people talking about what we could and should be doing differently if we are to achieve a step change in children’s mental health. And bravo to Wales for starting the conversation. Like any good debate it veers from one extreme to the other. On the one hand there are calls for more counselling in schools, and quick and easy access to specialist help; right the way through to radically rethinking every aspect of how we nurture and educate our children. The consensus, though, is clear – something needs to change. It’s the what and how that is the trickier bit. It can feel a bit like a balancing act – all suggestions have validity but too much of one thing risks it all tipping over. No one would argue that more experts with specialist training wouldn’t help, but the more we carve up mental health to someone else the more trouble we are storing up for the future. The culture of ‘referring on’ is a fundamental issue to shift, with ‘holding on’ being a far more transformational aspiration. However, too much pressure on schools to provide the whole answer and they understandably end up feeling paralysed. Especially given the current stress teachers find themselves under. We all have to be in this together if we are to achieve the change we need to see – with a whole school approach just one element of a ‘systems wide paradigm shift’. As if we didn’t already think we had enough on our plates.
I wanted to respond to offer my reflections on how we find the middle ground without compromising our vision. I believe it is possible for us to both THINK BIG and START NOW. It all centres around the core values that we focus in on; and we can use the current frameworks to start the process of cultural change by enacting these values at any and every opportunity. Let’s take as an example the first five minutes of the school day. What message does it give our children? What message does it give every single one of our children? My own children went to a great primary – one of the ‘best’ if you judge a school by league tables, and how much the places, even within catchment, are oversubscribed. At the time I didn’t think too much about it, but in hindsight the first five minutes of their day said a huge amount about the school, and it’s values. The much respected headteacher would stand at the gate, late book in hand. She would smile and say hello but the message was clear – you had skidded in just in time. Others behind you would not be so lucky. The children would gather in the yard and when the bell rang they would line up by their door – girls in one row, boys in the other. No-one would be let in until everyone was standing still. A familiar routine, I’m sure, that takes place every day of every term up and down the country.
None of it was particularly controversial, and I don’t remember feeling too perturbed by it at the time. We take much of the education system for granted and don’t think to question the minute by minute minutia. However, with the benefit of hindsight, and viewing everything through the lens of children’s mental health, even within this tiny window in a thriving school I can now see cracks for children to fall through. Being on time is, of course, something to aspire to and a valuable life skill. It is easy to achieve if you are a child in a family that values this too, and has the resources (physical and emotional) to make this happen. But what does being shamed by the late book mean for the child who has had to wake their parent and dress their little sister or brother before the school day has even started? Boys and girls lining up by the door is a very straight forward and seemingly benign request. But what does it say to the child who was born into a boy’s body when they feel like a girl inside? Every single day? Standing still is never easy for children, but for some children it is a near impossible task. What does it say when you are always ‘that child’ who delays your class from moving onto the next activity?
If we choose to look at these first five minutes through the lens of a values base that underpins positive mental health then how might it look? For me, and echoed by many of my colleagues in the workshop, the values would centre around creating a culture of safety and belonging, of connection, of empathy, of celebrating individuality, and of fun – to name but a few; and all achieved through warm and supportive relationships. With these values informing everything that happens in a school how might the first five minutes of every morning be different? Well, very simply, the headteacher would greet every child with a smile, and a “welcome to school, I’m really pleased you’re here”. They might notice who is late, but instead of it being a black mark it would become a cause for concern and a prompt to be curious about what might be happening at home – especially if there was a pattern. The children could then line up in which ever line they wanted – so long as there were two relatively even ones. Maybe even when the outdoor clock said the time, or when the teacher arrived at the door rather than a bell ringing – where else in life do we respond to a bell? Maybe instead of standing still the children could do whatever they wanted to on the spot – hop? jump? spin? So long as they were respecting the space of the other children around them why shouldn’t they get some physical exercise in at the same time? It could even be a game of Simon Says? With these values informing what happens in school the children would experience a very different start to the day, every day, and it would take no more time from the teachers involved.
If we wanted to take a step further along the continuum towards a ‘whole school approach’ to children’s mental health how might the first five minutes of the day look? I had the privilege of experiencing a very concrete example during the three years I spent with my children in Canada. At my daughters school the children went in when the doors opened (like we do in most areas of life). Piped music was played through a sound system throughout the building. The songs were chosen by the older students on a rotation. On my visit it happened to be ‘The Final Countdown’ by Europe. The children were dancing as they took their coats off, and when I glanced in the class rooms some of the teachers were dancing too. At 9am the music changed to the Canadian National Anthem and all children stood by their desks and sang along. Toronto is one of the most multicultural cities in the world, and yet every child joined in and felt a sense of belonging – even my own fiercely loyal Welsh off spring. When that was finished, one of the teachers would talk through a mindfulness exercise that everyone took part in – it was even piped into the office. The three values communicated in the first five minutes were fun, inclusion and well-being.
And a step further along the continuum towards a ‘whole school approach’? Again I turn to Canada, and to my son’s move to high school, aged 14 – when engagement is hardest and risk of mental health difficulties soar. He went to an Arts school – but there were a number of options he could have chosen from in recognition that all young people are different and have different strengths. For example, he could equally have gone to a robotics school, or a sports school or even a school that focused on social justice. There was also the local high school, of course, for kids who were all rounders or who didn’t feel ready to narrow their options down. The first five minutes of his day involved walking down a corridor with expressive and expansive murals covering the walls and doors, including the gender neutral, male and female toilets. Dancers limbered up in the hall, singers and musicians practiced in rehearsal rooms and visual artists prepped in studios. His major was music and so he would go to his form room and set up his drums each morning, joining the rest of his class of musicians who made up the band. “For the first two lessons we focus on their major”, the head teacher explained, “because we want to get them through the door for something they love. Then it’s our job to engage them in the lessons that may hold less appeal.” All children had a general education too. None of the children in any school wore uniform…..because the fact that children aren’t uniform came across strongly as a value in the education system.
I share these just as examples from my own personal experience of how things could be different. Do I think Canada has found the silver bullet when it comes to children’s mental health? Of course not. There isn’t just one. But it certainly feels closer than we are even by the ‘first five minutes test’ to having a set of values that underpin positive well-being and mental health. I have also heard of several young people in my son’s Art school who say that the school saved their life. A safe space that allowed them to be themselves and celebrated their unique individuality was the thing that made all the difference to their mental health; especially important for those who had struggled to find their place in a more generic, less accepting, school environment.
There are, of course, probably many more steps along the continuum we could take. I would suggest we could even turn it around and ask how would we design schools if we were starting from scratch? We know so much more about children’s emotional well being, what they need to flourish, about child development, attachment, the adolescent brain and about the impact of adversity and trauma. If we used this evidence base as our starting point what would our schools look like, and how would they work? If we had a blank page what education system would we create? If feels important not to lose sight of the ideal; and it would be an easy and fun question to ask children what the perfect school would be like – or even the first five minutes of the perfect school day. A ‘whole school approach’ means looking for and finding the cracks that children fall through and thinking creatively about how to fill them. There are only so many cracks you can repair before you consider whether a rebuild is a cheaper and safer alternative. Let’s think big, but don’t let thinking big prevent us from starting small. Every step can make a huge difference, especially for an individual child. And the first five minutes is an easy place to start.