The happiest time of our lives?
Schools have come a long way in working in the best interests of children since Pink Floyd famously sang about the "dark sarcasm in the classroom" four decades ago. But that doesn't mean to say that any generation has had the best or worst education, that there was ever a golden age, or that there's never room for improvement in the system. One thing that’s certainly true now is that the vast majority of parents and teachers want the same thing: for our children to have a happy and fulfilling school experience that will stand them in good stead once they further their education or join the workplace. Yet there is a mental health crisis in our schools. Why? And what more can parents do to work towards a solution in partnership with their child’s school?
Pressure from all sides
There are lots of ways parents and teachers working together can provide a great learning environment at home and school that nurtures children and brings the best out of them. But there are also external factors that can negatively impact upon a child's well-being.
- Social media. Facebook and other online platforms have grown beyond a mechanism to get back in touch with old friends and share cute videos of cats into, especially for younger people, an essential part of social life and tools for interacting with their peers to avoid being left out. Yet they bring their own downsides of cyber-bullying, which can invade the life of a child outside of school hours and provide cowards who would never bully another face-to-face with a mechanism for doing so from a safe distance. This is coupled with associated risks of online grooming or the pressure to share intimate photographs, which earlier generations didn’t have to worry about.
- School funding. The smooth-running of schools requires adequate funding and a well-distributed budget, which can attract and retain the best teachers and provide all the necessary resources to bring education to life, preferably with a little left over for additional treats. Yet today's youngsters are paying for the mistakes that led to the 2008 financial crash. A decade later, public services including schools are hard-pressed to make ends meet.
Within this context, children also face the usual pressures of exam stress and the growing weight of expectations from all sides as they progress through the school system. All these factors can combine to have a negative influence upon a child’s emotional well-being.
The impact of school on children’s mental health – the evidence
It's perhaps unsurprising that recent research shows that the confluence of factors on education has led to what many educators and journalists have called a "mental health crisis" in schools, as the knock-on effect of funding pressures, modern technology and homework/exams impact upon family life and children's well-being.
Our recent annual survey of parents found that:
- Around a fifth (17% overall compared to 23% of parents with children aged 16 or older) said their child had suffered from depression as a result of something that happened at school
- Two in five say their children have experienced stress relating to homework (42%) and exams (41%), while over a third have suffered from anxiety (38%) and bullying (33%)
- More than half are concerned that the school’s high expectations are putting pressure on their child (53%).
There was some variance with how satisfied parents were with the way their child was supported by the school, with the more specialist the issue, the better equipped parents believe schools are to offer help. 27% of those reporting depression in their child were not satisfied with the way their child was helped by the school. With self-harm, only 14% registered being not very satisfied or not at all satisfied, compared to 58% who were satisfied or very satisfied. The proportion for substance misuse was 12% dissatisfied compared to 76% satisfied.
What others are saying
As well as parents reporting the increase, the research of mental health charity Young Minds corroborates the findings from a teacher's point of view. They say that "90% of school leaders have reported an increase in the last 5 years in the number of students experiencing anxiety, stress, low mood or depression."
The National Audit Office suggests, "It is likely that mental health services, particularly for children and young people, will be one of the main priorities in the NHS’s next 10-year plan."
The Children's Commissioner (Anne Longfield) identified, "Not having the right service at the right time – especially mental health support" for young people among the top issues as part of the Year in Review 2017/18.
Parents as part of the solution
The impact of too much stress and anxiety, as well as mental health disorders, even where they may have their origins in school life, transcends the school gates. It is crucial that parents have good lines of communication with school leaders or teachers to identify and address issues early, and if necessary, work together to ensure the right professional support is sought and provided. Parents, who know their child best, can act as an indicator to schools as to the status of their child's mental health, however serious the issue, and, if they wish, promote a support network between parents. Such a whole-school approach recognises parents as partners, which is a necessary first step in ensuring children receive the correct support at home and at school. For parents needing more support, see the Young Minds Parents Helpline.