There was a slightly awkward moment on Question time when Theresa May, Prime Minister and all round powerhouse was confronted by someone who had suffered the indignity of being questioned aggressively about mental health in a work capability assessment.
I'll give the 'strong and stable' one her due, she did quite a good listening face and dealt with the question quite capably on a superficial level. This I won't deny. What I will now do is attempt to explain why her answer was an utter fraud.
The basis of the answer from the self proclaimed demigod of negotation was that 'mental and physical health require parity in the NHS and that it is important to ensure schools are equipped to deal with mental health'. I'm going to take issue with the second part of the answer as I don't work in the NHS and thus don't have the required systemic knowledge (though it's fairly plain to see the NHS needs more than a re-balancing of priorities.)
So to the crux of my argument:
Dealing with mental health in schools is fine - I don't take any issue with that goal. What we need for our economic prosperity and future wellbeing are functioning people who can think clearly and effectively about the challenges which face our society and live happy, healthy and productive lives. I absolutely agree with the fact that mental health in children and young people is a priority.
However I also believe that the government have NO idea how to tackle it and no intention of taking any measures to support young people in crisis. Below, I lay out a brief set of arguments explaining why I believe this.
1: When faced with an 8% real terms funding cut, schools have incredibly tough decisions to make. It is little surprise that the mental health funding (as well as funding to support 'neurodiverse' learners of all types - there is a clear link between certain areas of neurodiversity and mental health) is on the line.
2: Schools are often the people who refer young people to external services. Again, the picture here is bleak. With less internal and less external services the burden falls onto teaching staff. Mental health isn't something a well meaning teacher or teaching assistant can just 'listen away' (assuming the teacher has any time to do so) and dealing with self harm, suicide and overbearing anxiety can leave a huge burden on teaching staff who (lets remember this) aren't equipped with any clinical specialisms in their training. They are just adults who have been trained to deliver information about their specialist subjects in the main. It's not all that far removed from expecting the person in charge of training at Tesco or Morrisons to intervene when their employees suffer ill health. A good history teacher is not automatically a good counsel for anxiety or stress problems for example. The ability to teach well is different from the ability to manage mental health in others, especially when severe.
3: Are teachers themselves in that much better position than the learners? I wrote at length about teacher mental health in a previous blogging guise. The stunning fact is that over 80% of teachers self identify as suffering or recently suffering their own mental health problems. I don't know about you, but I feel like that also requires some thought from our leaders. We constantly hear rhetoric about 'creating world-class education' and I feel that anything that is going to be 'world class' will require healthy and fit people to achieve it. Our teaching staff are not. Much has been taken from corporate culture and transported into education. The idea that rested and happy employees are more creative, productive and efficient has not.
The aforementioned 8% cuts are going to put more pressure on teaching staff. This will surely not improve the situation. How are adults in education going to model healthy behaviours and take on the additional burden of mental health care for young people in education in the light of the above cuts? I honestly don't know. The bleakly hilarious blackly comic truth is that it will probably be through a half-hearted programme of mindfulness lifted from a well-meaning corporate strategy elsewhere but with a 10th of the funding and a 200th of the time allocated.
4: The school system itself is partly to blame and the Conservatives have made it worse. Again, I've written at length on both the draining experience of 'learning' experienced by young people. I've also covered the damaging impact of high stakes testing and the lack of access to a second chance for young (and old) people. I believe in the core of my being that our teachers, by and large are dedicated and excellent. I believe our schools are often truly remarkable, but we are stuck with a badly designed and outmoded view of how to measure and record learners progress and success.
I think we need to embrace thinking skills, technology and be prepared to rewrite from the ground up, what we want education to be and how we do it. There is plenty of the current model I'd keep, but equally much I'd change, not least because there is such a gap between the way learners interact with the real world around them day to day and how they are expected to communicate in exams.
The 21st century will require learners to independently discover new skills and knowledge throughout their life as the economy becomes more 'gig-based' - 'lets do away with coursework as we can't think of anything more imaginative than more old fashioned exams. Brilliant!' - This is clearly a debate for another time but I think it's clear to me (and in my thinking about education, I try to be as free from dogma as possible) that any sort of fundamental positive change is unlikely to happen under this government with its largely backwards looking agenda. (ok, the coding thing was good, I'll give Gove that much.) The Tories have spotted certain problems correctly but they've prescribed the wrong medication and made the patient more poorly is how I'd judge their record.
As a result of both cuts and general direction from education policy we see subjects on the fringes of the system being put under pressure - things like arts provision in which children have arguably more time to reflect on themselves and their existence in a confusing world, to learn to communicate and explore emotion, are amongst the subjects most likely to be cut.
5: Child mental health is of course not simply caused and created by schools. Nor can schools simply cure it and solve it. If we accept that poverty and precariousness is intrinsically linked to mental health and behaviour (and thus logically to performance) then we need to see a government serious about tackling mental health, serious about tackling poverty, homelessness and so on. The evidence tells us this government isn't committed to this.
6: Do we trust a government which so enthusiastically pushes a programme of academisation (or privatisation which should be its proper name,) creates the chaos of free schools and seems hell bent on grammar schools?
My opposition to these proposals is not (in the main) ideological, it's because there is slim to no evidence to support them and they hoover up funds and time pursuing a dead end when it would be far more cost and time efficient to reform a comprehensive model of education for the 21st century. It might not fit into the tired mantra that 'the market will dictate' but it might actually work.
- I cannot see how we can improve child mental health by cutting funding for services related to child mental health, ensuring testing is more stressful not less, putting greater pressure on school budgets (and thus on TIME for teachers to respond to individual needs) and making the exam system more distant from the reality of the 21st century. Putting a token sum of money back into the system marked 'mental health' doesn't help and doesn't address my concerns at all.
- It's like me robbing your house, taking the valuable, smashing stuff up but doing the hoovering for you.
- A friend of mine said to me that the Tories are genius at keeping things 'just not quite crap enough for people to revolt' - I think those of us who care about education (which basically should be more or less everyone) should be revolted by the non-answer May gave to the lady on question time and in revolt over her plans for education. She might intend to 'solve' child mental health and want to be Prime Minister but I wanted to be a footballer not a teacher. Sadly, I simply wasn't equipped for the challenge I set myself and neither, I'm afraid is she.