The Best Leaving Gift Ever


At the age of 52, I can just about remember the day I left school in 1988.   I can’t remember much of a glorious send off – it was the days before the Americanisation of the end of school with a “Prom” or similar.  Certainly no limos and tuxedos in the 80s!  My mates and I went down to Folkestone beach and spent the day in a friend’s beach hut drinking tea and getting furiously sunburnt – such rebels! Ironically, we did get a leaving gift of sorts.  As a Senior Prefect, I remember getting an £80 cheque sent to me!?  I was astonished – this was quite a sum of money in those days.  There wasn’t much of an explanation given with it and I can only assume it came from some sort of Trust fund set up by an ex-pupil who insisted it is spent on leaving Prefects.  Who knows?  I was grateful and it helped with travel costs to Uni a few months later.

Looking back on my school days and that rather impersonal, but generous, leaving gift I can’t help thinking I should have given something else instead.  I don’t wish to be ungrateful of course.  I was one of the lucky ones who benefitted from a grammar school education.  I still wrestle with this now – knowing I was lucky and others weren’t and the divisive nature of the 11 Plus system.  I received a decent education. However, I think there was one thing really missing from my portfolio when I left school.  I felt I was missing the self-awareness, the language and the tools to manage my mental health and wellbeing.  This is no reflection on my teachers who I remain fond of to this day but I went to Uni really totally unprepared for the impact it would have on my mental health and well-being.  In fact, this chasm in my education I also took into my professional life.  

Looking back I didn’t even have the skills of self-awareness – knowing how to interpret a feeling or a sensation.  I didn’t even have the lexicon, the vocabulary, or the nomenclature to describe feelings even if I was able to pick them up. And finally, I certainly didn’t have the arsenal of strategies to address certain feelings or emotions.  It does no good at all to look back on life and wish for this and wish for that. I have an amazing family, wife, kids and friends and have had a fruitful and rewarding career.  However, we should want more for our children and their children too.  

I think there has been a mindset change universally about mental health.  The awareness has definitely increased which is to be celebrated.  Notable famous people have thrown their lives open bare to help others.  I have just watched Ben Stokes’ documentary and it blew me away.  However, has there been a subsequent step change in the way we arm our children for life beyond school in terms of recognising changes in mental health.  Have we given them the language to be able to express this to others?  Have we given them the bank of interventions and actions they can deploy themselves to manage their mental health?  Have we given them the leaving gift from school they should all have?  I am not sure we have.

The very best schools in this country have got this right.  They have tools to identify children at social-emotional risk early – even those who are choosing to hide it.  They have embedded in the curriculum the language around mental health to allow young people to express themselves eloquently about their own well-being. They have taught young people the techniques and skills to help manage their mental health and succeed in the next stage of their life beyond school.

As an ex-inspector, if I was looking to grade a school’s pastoral care as ‘outstanding’ or ‘excellent’  I would need to see three elements at play:  

  • a proactive approach – don’t wait for things to go wrong or become visible; 
  • a longitudinal approach – keep monitoring over time, don’t assume a young person looking ok in Sep is still ok in Jan;
  • a ‘life beyond school’ approach – educate young people to be able to do the two things above for themselves i.e a great ‘self-regulator.’

In other words, before the fact, during the fact and after the fact.  A great advertising experience, a great buying experience and great after-sales care.  What are these emotions I am having?  How do I tell others so they understand?  What do I do about it?

Would you be prepared to sacrifice a prom, £80 or tea on the beach for the Best Leaving Gift Ever?