This month, the UK government announced £300million funding for the provision of mental health interventions in schools and colleges. Funding for mental health resources are always a good thing – as is this.
However, I would suggest that before schools and colleges go rushing off to find resources (from us or anywhere else!) to fulfill the mental health remit within their place of learning – they might want to consider starting at the beginning. The beginning, that is, of poor mental health for many young people: schools themselves.
If we consider how children are inducted into Primary School: it is with an ethos of friendship and kindness to one another. Some primary schools have a “friendship bench” where, if a child is lonely and friendless they are encouraged to sit on the bench to alert their fellow pupils of their emotional state. The whole school is expected to be alert and to respond to a vulnerable or isolated pupil by inviting the child to join their play. Unkindness is frowned up and pupils held accountable, even at five, if they deliberately bully or isolate another pupil.
And then, eventually, these pupils progress to Secondary School and some of them will receive a rude introduction to the “dog eat dog” world of secondary education. They will, of course, see various posters dotted about the place announcing “Stamp Out Bullying” and, if a bullied child drums up the courage to tell a teacher – pupils may hear about x, y or z being called to the central office to “sort it out” – perhaps even to a mediation session with the bullied child.
For thirty years I have asked the question “Why can’t the zero tolerance ethos of Primary School towards bullying be continued in Secondary School”. The “why they can’t” answers have included:
“Children need to be able to stand up for themselves”
“Its hormonal – young people like to test themselves against others”
“Teachers have a more serious job to do than primary school teachers”
I won’t go on because some of them are just ludicrous: “We can’t mollycoddle – they have to learn the hard way how to deal with others” (I know i promised I wouldn’t go on…..). Only one of the above responses were from Teachers themselves – most of whom despair at the lack of compassion some young people show to their peers.
There are some people, parents included, who believe that you can’t protect a teenager from bullying in school. Mmmm – now, let’s examine that: if you are 30 years old and you start work in a new office and your colleagues decide that your race, or hair colour, or shape – marks you out for a gang of them to belittle you every time you pass them or they trap you in the corridor and give you a sly punch, you would be protected fully by the law, by employment legislation and, no doubt, your attackers would be sacked if not charged with assault.
I suggested another thing thirty years ago that I was also assured “wouldn’t work – logistics, you see…..” and that was that to start the school day with teachers standing at the classroom door to shake hands with every pupil as they entered. My thinking was that this courteous act would break many negative patterns between pupil and Teacher, as well as creating many new positive patterns: I acknowledge you, acknowledge your place in this class, I respect you as an individual and look forward to a good day together. I am pleased to say that some schools did adopt this and, 30 years later, thanks to brilliant behavioural change schools training provided by Paul Dix, who quite separately introduced this as a good start to the day – many schools across the country adopt this. It seems logistics allowed after all.
There is no school, I imagine, that doesn’t have an “Anti-bullying” policy but I consider that it isn’t much different in the manner it is implemented than it was a decade or more ago – posters (there is always a poster somewhere in the school) a policy on the website and in the admissions brochure: reactive consequences for the bully and on and on it goes – all too little and too little.
I suggest that a good, free, mental health resource in schools might include: Morning Assembly. According to the Dept for Education: it is a legal requirement in the UK for every maintained school in England to “provide a daily act of collective worship which reflects the traditions of the country” however many schools choose to use the time to focus on society or community responsibilities rather than religion and many do not hold any type of assembly, maintaining that they “don’t have the space to do a whole-school assembly“.
But, if they did hold an Morning Assembly and drove a focus on prioritizing pupil well-being and emotional safety as both a non-negotiable founding principle each and every day above any other school rule and that unkindness and bullying by word or deed would not be tolerated – pupils just might get the same message that they got at Primary School.
It is up to the individual school, after all, what policies and procedures they build their school on. Some will have strict uniforms, other will not. Some will have “silent corridors” others do not. Some schools show incredible creativity in problem-solving that a school in the same area might not have even considered – does that mean that it can’t be done? As an example, it would not take any money from the budget to announce before the end of a school term that “In September, we will be re-opening with a “total inclusion” policy that all pupils will be a part of. It is the school’s belief that it is not enough to deal with bullying in a reactionary way – from September, our whole focus and ethos will be founded in the mental health and well-being of every pupil. We do so in the understanding that pupils who feel vulnerable or dispirited, will struggle to get the best out of their education” as for a instance.
I also have this ridiculous notion that an actual “alarm bell” should be rung in the school when a pupil reported being bullied by another pupil and everyone would know that this particular bell meant that they needed to gather in the Assembly Hall where, without names being mentioned, an announcement that a pupil has reported bullying and an emphasis given, by the Head, as to the seriousness of this. You, the reader, may think that I have lost my senses at this suggestion. But it might be something similar to what a school does during a fire alert. Congregating in the Car Park or congregating in the School Hall – in the event of fire or in the event of a child’s mental health being affected: they are both the start of something dangerous being ignited. I am sure that others will have a simpler solution – but it must be drastic, it must be dramatic, it must send a message: education without educating the heart is no education at all.