Questions to ask the Headteacher about mental wellbeing and the answers you should expect
Simon Antwis has been a Headteacher of three schools, as well as a school inspector. He is now Senior Business Development Consultant at STEER Education.
“What is your school doing to support students’ wellbeing and mental health?”
As a headteacher, part of my role was always to promote the school. This involved Open Days, Parent Meetings and the all-important school tours. I insisted on doing as many tours as possible. Firstly, because I felt the parents wanted to see the Headteacher. Secondly, it got me away from my desk, helped me be more visible around the school and gave me a snapshot of the hurly-burly of school life. I loved talking about my school and showing off the children and teaching.
Back at my office, I would invite parents to ask me questions. My favourite was: “Do you have bullying at this school?” The temptation was to provide a well- polished response that implied that we were a perfect school with children as happy as could be. But I always chose to respond: “Of course there is bullying at this school.”
This response would certainly get parents’ attention. I would quickly follow it up. We are talking about a school with over 1,000 young people shoe-horned together for seven hours a day for five to seven years. Imagine the carnage if 1,000 adults were in the same position. It was important for me to quickly clarify what is meant by ‘bullying.’ The Anti-Bullying Alliance defines it as:
“The repetitive, intentional hurting of one person or group by another person or group, where the relationship involves an imbalance of power. Bullying can be physical, verbal or psychological. It can happen face-to-face or through cyberspace.”
It was also important to remind parents that it might not be bullying: it may be thoughtlessness, meanness or unkindness, if it was unintentional, not repeated or there was no imbalance of power. I’d make it clear that:
- All the school staff were well trained to identify and address bullying behaviours;
- The school was well-resourced and had lesson plans, assemblies and a PSHE curriculum that regularly looked at what bullying was and how to tackle and prevent it
- As a school we had a clear plan that identified bullying early, responded to it with a multitude of responses, measured the impact of our responses to it and reviewed how we were reacting to it with accurate, qualitative data.
I’d emphasise that everyone in the school took responsibility for rooting it out.
I would invite parents to ask the other Headteachers in the other schools they were visiting to ask the same question and judge our school accordingly. If another Headteacher said “No, there isn’t bullying here.” then something would be afoot. Either they would be lying or they were ignorant, I’d say.
Another, just as valid question, parents should ask is:
“Are there wellbeing and mental health issues at this school?”
Again, the answer should be:
“Of course, this is an organisation full of young people who are under the intense pressures of modern life and whose mental health reflects the state of the nation.”
Ideally, the Headteacher would go on to say:
“But this is what we do differently and uniquely at our school….”
- We have a clear vision for the early identification of mental well-being issues in ALL of our young people – even those who are trying to mask it;
- All of our staff are excellently trained to identify, intervene and spot trends in individuals and across groups and cohorts;
- We can even identify differences between how a child is feeling at school and outside school;
- We have clear granular action plans at all levels to address the issues we find: individual action plans, group action plans, cohort action plans, whole school action plans, family action plans;
- We can report on the impact of our plans to all of our stakeholders and those that hold us to account inc. parents, pupils, Governors, Trustees, inspectors, safeguarding auditors;
- We can compare how we are doing with UK and worldwide data gathered over more than 5 years;
- We are at the cutting edge of the latest research informed practice that we constantly build into our work;
- We can teach young people to be able to do this for themselves, develop their essential soft skills for life beyond school in the FE, HE and the workplace. The best “leaving gift ever.”
- Everyone in the school takes responsibility for the mental well-being of our young people.
Whether you are a prospective parent or even a prospective pupil, ask a Headteacher challenging questions and look out for the answers you should be getting.