Excelling in school and college and achieving the right grades are of course important, but do these aims mean that students are sacrificing their wellbeing and becoming unwell? When did grades become more important than wellbeing? What’s the point in students achieving outstanding grades if they become so unwell they can’t build on that success?
In April NEU (ATL Section) surveyed members on mental health; the results revealed that 82% of respondents believe tests and exams have the biggest impact on the mental health of pupils. 50% felt that the narrowing of the curriculum has had an adverse impact on student’s mental health and 48% said the pressure students put on themselves to do well academically is a major cause of stress for students.
When did grades become more important that wellbeing?
The Government’s Green Paper, Transforming Children and Young People's Mental Health, offered unambitious proposals to tackle the increase in students presenting with ill mental health. There’s something contradictory in proposing to provide more mental health support for young people but then continuing to press ahead with the current testing regime, which is one of the major causes of poor mental health.
The Green Paper failed to ask the right questions. What the Government should be consulting on is the effects of increased testing and exam pressures and a narrowed curriculum, which has limited opportunities for all students to find out what they're good at and experience success.
If the right funding and training is made available to support this crucial subject, educators could have a positive impact on student’s mental health.
The Government has a valuable opportunity to give educators and students the space and time to talk to students about their mental health by introducing statutory PSHE. PSHE would provide the perfect opportunity to discuss emotional wellbeing, managing stress, and breakdown stigmas that exist around mental health. We cannot underestimate the power of supporting pupils to develop the skills, language and knowledge they need to keep themselves and others healthy. If the right funding and training is made available to support this crucial subject, educators could have a positive impact on student’s mental health.
Government proposals to train Mental Health First Aiders to oversee the mental health and wellbeing of students may sound like a good idea in theory but with no additional funding being provided to the post holder this will be another duty to add to an already overworked educator and potentially impact on the persons own mental health.
Educators must be supported if they are to support students
If educators are experiencing mental health issues due to well documented workload pressures, then they are in no position to take on the enormous task of overseeing the mental health and wellbeing of their students. Educators must be supported if they are to support students. A mentally healthy workplace is key if staff are to support students.
The effect that poverty has on a student’s mental health went unnoticed in the Green Paper. If excessive testing, pressure to excel and limited curriculum choices aren’t enough to impact on student’s mental health, then combine those pressures with the reality of not being able to attend school or college because you’re on your period and can’t afford sanitary products, or you’re so hungry you can’t concentrate because your family have been hit so hard by Government cuts they can’t provide adequate meals.
An EHRC report on the impact of tax and benefit policy forecast an extra 1.5 million children will be living in poverty by 2021 as a consequence of the Government’s austerity programmes. These cuts have hit the most disadvantaged students hardest with disabled children, children form ethnic minority backgrounds and children of lone parents bearing the brunt.
Austerity has a profound effect on the mental health of students.
Poverty has an enduring effect on students from an early age, by the time students take their GCSE’s, there is a 28% gap in the number of students achieving 5 A*-C grades who receive free school meals and those that don’t.
The impact of the austerity policies has been damaging for the mental health of the most disadvantaged families because these policies impact on all areas of life, from education and housing, to healthcare and employment. Austerity has a profound effect on the mental health of students.
As long as the Government ignores the link between poverty and mental health and refuses to reverse austerity policies then a solution to the mental health crisis students are facing will not be found.
Educators cannot take the place of Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAHMS) professionals; these services must be provided locally by trained specialists. CAHMS teams have seen roles and funding decimated over the past five years leaving gaps in provision and differences in services across the country meaning students with mental health problems do not get the help they need.
Students need the government to take a more ambitious approach to transforming mental health provision
Educators can only do so much; access to specialists and lengthy waiting lists for appointments are a major barrier for students, schools and colleges. When surveyed about access to support services, 65% of NEU (ATL Section) members said their school or college finds it more difficult to access them compared to a year ago.
Waiting-times for CAMHS appointments can vary from a few weeks to more than a year, depending on where you live. In some areas students are being assessed and then turned down for treatment, because their problems are not serious enough. These specialised services are at breaking point, leaving them with no option but to treat only the students who are experiencing the most serious ill mental health.
To have a positive impact on student’s mental health the Government must allocate sufficient funding for CAMHS so that these specialised services have strong links with schools and colleges allowing students to access specialised support when they need it.
Students need the government to take a more ambitious approach to transforming mental health provision. A Government that’s complacent about child poverty and relaxed about excessive testing will not transform mental health provision.
When the Government publishes its response to the consultation, we want to see:
- Adequate funding allocated for schools and colleges
- Adequate funding allocated for CAMHS
- Joined up policy that links education, housing and healthcare
- A review of accountability measures
- A broader curriculum
- PSHE to be compulsory in all schools
If the Government are serious about transforming mental health provision, they must listen to students, educators, parents and specialist service providers who are asking for sustainable, long term change to the way we approach mental health.