Consultation: The views from senior leaders on mental health in schools and colleges

Working with our partners at Leeds Beckett University, as the Carnegie Centre of Excellence for Mental Health in Schools, we consulted with highly engaged senior leads for mental health from 12 schools to inform the House of Commons Select Committee evaluation of the government’s implementation of mental health strategy.

Here we share their views:

The offer of training to help leads and staff to deliver whole school approaches to promoting better mental health has not been met, as set out in the 2017 Green Paper

‘There are one day 'commercial' courses, for example to become a mental health lead which is in no way enough. The government should be funding courses like the MA School Leadership of Mental Health and Wellbeing…I work with all of the schools in our large multi-academy trust and only a handful have identified a Senior Lead for Mental Health...or they have not prioritised it against other needs and therefore it has not be achieved...the understanding of how important this role is to longer term success is not demonstrated effectively enough for certain schools to prioritise this against other perhaps more immediate needs in the school.

Head of Wellbeing at an all-through school.

The school leaders commented on how they ‘have not yet been offered the bespoke training for the Mental Health Lead but we would be keen to make use of it’ and ‘have sought external expertise from training companies/organisations’. 

Since writing this, the Department for Education is progressing at pace with ensuring quality assured mental health leadership courses will exist from September.

We hope that our courses will be approved and available to schools and colleges from the Autumn term.

Interest in our leadership programmes for mental health has grown as over 1,000 schools have started the award and 60 school leaders have started the Masters. It is clear that there is demand for this training and it needs to be provided as soon as possible.  

The majority of the school leaders had not had any experience of the Mental Health Support Teams. Only 3 out of 12 had any experience of working with them. Several had spoken with local CAMHS, school nurses and other professionals who likewise did not know about Mental Health Support Teams.

‘We definitely have a 'gap' in supporting needs & we need to improve multi-agency working through better communication and co-ordination of support.’

Deputy Head at a primary school.
Many school leaders have decided to fund and source the support themselves as ‘there has not been any joint working in mental health'

My own school has a graduated approach to mental health, funding a school counsellor & more recently engaging the services of a paediatric mental health nurse to support children struggling…’

Head teacher at a primary school.

There were three positive instances of working successfully with Mental Health Support Teams. These schools reported a good communication and referral process and some good support for pupils. However, there was the need to improve the training, received by Mental Health Support Teams so that they had a greater education focus and to improve the diversity of the staff, who are often not representative of the local community: ‘there can be a lack of diversity offered to our BAME community which doesn’t always enable cultural understanding and the role this plays is seeking support.’

 

It is clear that headteachers want this school-employed mental health support role to be a key part of the school community. Many existing school staff are doing this important work but have not had a proper qualification or training to support their work and deepen their practice. 

This is why we have launched the School Mental Health Specialist, a new role and qualification for the sector that starts this September. They will have an educational and mental health focus and better reflect the diversity of the school community.

This would address many issues mentioned, such as the mental health training provided being ‘basicAs society and the pressures change, the need for this to be built on will be necessary. Plus staff forget if they don’t enact what they know everyday – so it needs to be built into the culture of the school better.’ 

Settings are not receiving the mental health awareness training, which was promised for a member of staff in each school. All of the settings we spoke to had driven the initiative themselves, some school leaders had delivered it themselves if they had been on training from us or they had invested their own budget.  Some individuals voluntarily signed up to online courses such as the ones we provided in June 2020 in partnership with Bupa Foundation where over 1,200 school leaders accessed our resources, or the range of school leadership master classes that we offer. 

‘The onus is very much on the voluntary sector.'

Deputy Head at a primary school.

All the settings reported insufficient supply of quality mental health support capacity to meet their growing demand. Many settings had deployed their own resources such as counsellors and they are ‘mindful of post-COVID increasing demand for supportive intervention even further’.  Some felt ‘due to lack of central government funding and guidance it’s inconsistent and variable… essentially a postcode lottery’. There were also widely held views that the approach at the moment was not systematic nor consistent, leading to confusion and duplication. Independent schools and FE settings were feeling left out and ignored. 

 

Regarding the updated RSHE curriculum, responses from the school leaders are that it has been utilised and appropriate changes were made and this guidance from the government was needed and appreciated as it had been ‘a long time coming’. Additionally, The emphasis placed on mental health having equal importance as physical health is an important message in order to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and the profile of both mental and physical health will be raised within schools as a consequence of these changes’ (Senior Leadership Mental Health Lead at an academy). However, there are recommendations for improvements as it could be more challenging for schools that are doing well.

For example, ‘more emphasis on MH, especially in Primary, it’s a bit ‘wishy washy’ whereas we have found that introducing the term mental health in Reception and giving the children the vocabulary and understanding to talk about MH works really well and that the children are anecdotally good observers of their own MH. I also think there needs to be a stronger focus on diversity and inclusion’ (Deputy Head at a primary school).

 

School leaders felt that Ofsted had a role to play. ‘it supports embedding and heightening awareness of the correlation between mental wellbeing, academic outcome and positive progression, whilst holding senior leadership accountable for ensuring that mental well being policies are robust and meet the needs of students and staff’ (Mental Health and Wellbeing Lead at a college). This sentiment was repeated by many of the school leaders we consulted with.  

Schools cannot be expected to implement something overnight, and with minimal support and zero budget. The current circumstances make mental health even more important for schools to consider but also make it so much more difficult to achieve this so, before we hold anyone to account, we need to ensure everyone has the skills and resources to achieve this to the best effect.

Head of Wellbeing at an all-through school.