To What Extent is it Appropriate for Schools to Tackle Mental Health Problems?
I would hazard a guess that the majority of people who read this blog are at least intuitively in favour of the idea that it should be within the remit of schools and schoolteachers to aid and maintain the positive mental health of their students. I believe that such a claim warrants scrutiny and I aim to make you think more critically about precisely the implications of tackling mental health problems in schools.
To begin, a few caveats and remarks are required. First, I am a classroom teacher in what would euphemistically be termed a ‘tough school’ and this gives me both insight and biases. Second, there is a distinction between what schools (as organisations) should be doing and what individual teachers do. I will endeavour to make clear to which I am referring. Third, I believe that precisely what constitutes good (or bad) mental health is a complex issue with no obvious orthodoxy amongst the academic community. Government guidelines may therefore contradict particular academic research. Conversely, these same guidelines can be deliberately vague so as to not be contradictory. Nevertheless, confusion about definitional issues does not imply that we should necessarily do nothing to improve and maintain the mental health of school students. Last, I am in no sense questioning the importance of mental health to young people generally. I also acknowledge that ‘good’ mental health will have a positive impact on their school career both academically and generally. I simply want to argue that the increasing reliance on schools as sites for, and teachers as agents of mental health provision, might not be such a good thing.
As with so many debates within education, problems arise because of conflicting notions of what education should be. One might argue that the purpose of school is to equip young people with the skills they will need to find employment. Amongst policy makers this seems to be the prevailing orthodoxy. It is argued that better schools will be better for the wider economy. Furthermore, it is claimed that social justice can be achieved by making sure that schooling outcomes are meritocratic and not determined by the socio-economic status of parents. Purported macroeconomic benefits are not uncontroversial but the positive correlation between individual academic achievement and personal wealth is well understood. Conversely, one might argue that the purpose of school is to produce well intentioned, civic minded young people who are socially adept democratic citizens. A more extreme rejection of the economic argument for schooling claims that teaching children a centralised curriculum is inherently oppressive to them. I do not intend to provide an exhaustive discussion on this topic but it is necessary to offer a tentative description of what I think schools should do and show how this links to the issue of mental health.
I basically believe that my job is get students to achieve academically. By corollary I believe it is not my role to endow students with cultural capital and other non-academic attributes. Extrapolating to schools as a whole, not only is it true to say that schools ultimately live or die by academic league tables, there are also reasons to doubt that schools can (in the famous words of Basil Bernstein) ‘compensate for society’ at all. I therefore question the impact I or a school could have on the mental wellbeing of a young person.
Let me be very clear, I am not saying that students being mentally healthy would not be good for their academic performance; simply that dealing with their mental health shouldn’t be my job. Statutory guidelines clearly indicate that teachers have a role to play in enabling positive mental health but do recognise that teachers are not professionals in this area. However, I do not think that this acknowledgment goes far enough.
I have literally zero hours of training on how to deal with anything remotely to do with mental health. I do not have a background in the area whatsoever, or frankly any interest in becoming any kind of expert or practitioner. My understanding of how to deal with any child’s mental health needs amounts to tell the SENCO. I have worked with two SENCO’s during my time in education. One was incredible and inspirational. The other (and current) one is useless. I cannot find any research to make broad claims about the efficacy of SENCO’s generally but anecdotally most teachers I know are extremely negative about theirs.
One might argue that this lack of training for teachers on mental health issues and an overreliance on SENCO’s is a failure of the system as a whole. You might claim that it follows schools should reposition themselves to retrain staff to cater better to a wide variety of student needs. However, from a purely practical point of view this will never happen in the current educational climate. Teachers all already under an immense about of pressure and have too many things to do. Any additional CPD for mental health provision could only every be a bolt on to teacher training generally and if it were to be executed as poorly as much training currently is it would likely have little impact. Furthermore, in the current culture of performativity and performance related pay teachers are unlikely to take training seriously. Indeed, if a child has mental health issues that are negatively affecting their academic performance schools and teachers are essentially incentivised to marginalise said child at the expense others so as to meet academic targets such as Progress 8.
Again, you might object to this general climate within education but I personally think that performance related pay and Progress 8 are essentially good measures, if one assumes the purpose of schools to be largely about academic performance. I would argue that the place to address students mental health needs is entirely outside of school. Schools and teachers already have too much to do and much of it is done badly.
Much of the provision I encounter on a day to day basis and the general practices I am aware of from a variety of schools are what I would describe as laughable. For example, Ofsted Guidelines are at pains to stress the extent to which schools should endow students with resilience which they see as a major part of the mental well-being of students. My actual knowledge of how to endow students with such a thing amounts to some half-understood reading of Caroline Dweck during my PGCE year when my primary focus was survival. In my experience most trainee teachers treat the assignments as a joke and schools do not care about them. This is reflected in the farcical attempts at developing resilience in students which at my school most recently involved watching the advert for the Theory of Everything because Stephen Hawking was a resilient person. Bear in mind of course, that this happens in the context of a 15-minute form time in which I also have to check every students planner, equipment, take an accurate register, deal with individual problems, and legally am required to ‘know every student well’, whatever that means.
This is just a little snapshot of the many laughable and half-hearted attempts of teachers and schools trying to meet their legal requirements. One might contend that teachers should be trained better or work harder. But as I have said, I, and teachers generally, already feel massively overworked, and struggle to cope with the things we are experts in such as pedagogy, let alone trying to do further work which should require an expert. I would argue that instead, taking mental health provision out of schooling altogether and making it the preserve of social workers and trained experts, who would have appropriate funding and training, would be a far more useful approach.