Teenage mental health – more than a political soundbite

As with many others, I am absolutely delighted that Mrs Theresa May, our Prime Minister, has placed mental health at the heart of her ” shared society” agenda. In particular, the acknowledgement that funding for young people’s mental health has been lost in the black hole of NHS costs has to be the first step in addressing this deplorable state of affairs. I applaud this honesty and look forward to learning what the next steps will be.
What concerns me in the positive noises coming from Number 10 is that the Prime Minister is now looking to schools to play an even more significant role in addressing mental health issues. Teachers are of course well-placed to assess their students and will do everything they can to support those in their care. However, having identified a student in need of support, what next? Teachers are trained to teach not to offer clinical mental health treatment. The hard pressed CAMHS does what it can but is drowning under the pressure of those seeking help.
I know that the reasons behind the apparent increase in teenagers struggling with their mental well-being are complex hence the necessity for professional mental health care. Yet schools have within their gift the potential to play a positive role unrelated to Mrs May’s current political agenda. Just look at our expectations of young people, the hoops we make them jump through, just to come out the other end as “work ready”. The focus on “hard” qualifications, as supported by Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan, was always going to make many young people feel inadequate. The teachers tasked with getting their students through these tests have their own pressure cooker to contend with which inevitably will be a burden for students acutely aware of the significance of examination results.  
So imagine, if you can, a world where schools are able to place students’ well-being at the heart of the curriculum; where educators create an educational eco-system which is about stretch and challenge but also about support and focus on the needs of each individual learner? I think this is indeed the starting point for every good school, however, the iron fist of data and centrally led targets have created a dashboard of metrics which drives the soul destroying testing agenda. With Ofsted lurking in the shadows, the measurement of success does not take into account the well-being of students. 
Add to the mix the PISA tables and our propensity to beat ourselves up about our ranking and we have a perfect storm of pressure. Yet it would be prudent for our leaders to look at a critical side effect of an emphasis on testing in a leading PISA nation, South Korea. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which organises the PISA testing, knows that South Korea has a suicide crisis and that its test-centric education system is a catalyst. The government there is trying to address this.
So I urge our Prime Minister and Government to consider the mental well-being of our young people in the round. Stop thinking in beleaguered silos. Consider the experience of young people as a composite of home and school. Only in this way shall we transform their life chances and educate and support them to make a positive difference to all our lives in the future.

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