Nick Rose is a ‘Leading Practitioner’ for psychology and research, and teaches at a comprehensive secondary school in Hertfordshire. His blog can be found here and he occasionally tweets as @Nick_J_Rose.
There’s a growing political consensus that schools should help children develop ‘persistence, grit, optimism and curiosity’. The expectation is that these traits will support children getting the most from school and narrow the attainment gap. Who could argue against the desirability of such beneficial mental attributes? The question is, however, why is it that some children lack this positive outlook on life?
If we really want children from poorer backgrounds to overcome disadvantage, then we need to look beyond gimmicky, quick-fixes like ‘awards for character education’ and perhaps start tackling the growing problem of children’s mental health services. There’s a fairly well established and strong relationship between low economic status and increased mental illness. There’s evidence that the stresses of living in poverty increases the risk of developing mental health problems. Gould (2006) suggests that mental illness is a significant contributory factor to child poverty and that more than 2 million children are living in a household where at least one parent has a mental disorder.
The scale of the problem this creates in schools is somewhat daunting. The Annual Report of the Chief Medical Officer (2012) reported that 1 in 10 children under the age of 16 had a diagnosable mental disorder. The most common were anxiety, depression, conduct disorders, ADHD and autistic spectrum disorders – all of which can impact upon a child’s chances of achieving in school. Schools serving disadvantaged communities have a disproportionate challenge in this regard. The report identified the strong link between mental health problems and social disadvantage, with children in the poorest households three times more likely to have a mental health problem than those growing up in better-off homes.
I’ve long been worried about the rise of a form of amateur psychotherapy within schools; whether in the form of cognitive-behavioural therapy, mindfulness training, or similar attempts to tweak the psychology of our charges. The problem is that teachers aren’t qualified to provide psychological interventions for children, as well-meaning but failed attempts like SEAL demonstrate. The answer doesn’t lie with teachers taking on the role of psychotherapist.
Investing in professional mental health services is not a hopeless cause, as the CMO report suggests that there are clinically proven and cost-effective interventions that can help children. Tackling these mental health issues early also reduces later costs for health and social security, with potential life-long savings of between £75,000 and £150,000.
However, at the moment, support for children with mental health disorders has been diminishing as budget cuts start to bite hard. The charity ‘Young Minds’ used an FOI request to find out what had been happening to CAMHS funding and found that more than half the health trusts and councils which responded had cut funding in 2011/12, some by as much as 30%. ‘Character education’ initiatives are a sticking plaster covering a much bigger problem. It is pretty senseless demanding that schools improve the mental well-being of children when there is such variability in services and low-priority in funding for CAMHS.
Rather than endlessly arguing about structures or which subjects should be in the Ebacc it would be good to see Labour campaigning for something that could genuinely make a difference to the outcomes for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. If Labour genuinely wants to reduce the achievement gap and improve chances for children from poorer homes, then speaking up for a minimum standard to the provision of children’s mental health services and an end to the postcode lottery of provision would be something of substance in contrast to gimmicky ‘character education’ initiatives offered by the Conservatives.