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Andrew Speight and Dr Sue Roffey: A holistic approach to mental health and education

This independent article is from Andrew Speight, researcher and Dr Sue Roffey, Director, Growing Great Schools Worldwide, Hon Associate Professor University College London. The article is part of the LGA children and young people's mental health think piece series. The piece explores promoting wellbeing through a holistic approach to mental health and education.

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Mental health is a growing concern in England, particularly among young people. Newlove-Delgado et al (2022), conducting research for NHS Digital, found that 18 per cent of children aged 7-16 exhibited probable mental health challenges in 2022, marking a significant increase from 12.1 per cent in 2017.

Roffey (2023) emphasises that systemic factors, such as poverty, play a significant role in undermining well-being. Lack of basic resources, family instability, and inequality all contribute to the mental health challenges young people face.

Family life in particular plays a pivotal role in children’s well-being. Family breakdown, absent parents, and financial instability are factors that negatively impact children’s mental health. Early interventions, like Sure Start, aimed at improving parent-infant relationships, can be critical. Recognising the significance of the first 1,000 days of a child’s life is essential.

To address these issues, Roffey argues that we must adopt a holistic approach.

Mental health should not be viewed solely as an individual issue but as a result of systemic variables. Ensuring adequate access to basic resources, including healthy food, adequate sleep, and reliable technology, is essential for promoting good mental health. Reducing inequality through a well-funded welfare state, including health services, is crucial for narrowing the gap between the privileged and the underprivileged, as seen in Nordic countries.

On the topic of mental health in a systems context, there is evidence that the education system specifically is a significant systemic determinant affecting young people’s mental health. Young people frequently cite exam stress and the overall rigidity of the system as detrimental to their well-being.

Speight (2023) argues that we must shift towards an education system that recognises positive mental health and well-being as prerequisites for academic success and embed a “culture of well-being” across the system.

A culture of well-being within the education system can take many forms. Speight outlines a five-tier model for the culture of well-being - reflecting how it can encompass both individual’s words and action and also paradigmatic change in the way we educate our children, emancipating them to learn at their own direction through play.

Cultures are the collective manifestation of the values, practices and policies of a given population, meaning that, to effectively change them, we need to create change at every level - which is what this model reflects.

To summarise:

A tier one culture of well-being would detoxify interactions at a classroom & school level and engage young people more actively.  Pupils would not feel overwhelmed with dreary prognostications of their future should they fail their exams, and teachers would not feel themselves to be in constant conflict with pupils. The culture of well-being will only embed if everyone feels it is fair to them.

At tier two, schools would endeavour to support well-being through their own policies and introduce initiatives to support the well-being of the whole school community, such as by permitting more down time or running workshops to help members of the school community find coping strategies that work for them.

Tier three would draw on Prilleltensky’s (2003) concept of psychopolitical validity and utilise the school’s systemic apparatus in a meaningful way to identify what could be changed to support wellbeing. This would inevitably involve power sharing with young people, families, teachers & staff.

Tier four would see significant policy change at a national level to reduce the pressure being applied from above. This could involve, for example, reversing the 2015 reforms to the GCSE which made them more “rigorous” (evidence suggests that these exams in particular are a driving factor undermining young peoples’ wellbeing). These reforms should, in our opinion, be replaced with a new, holistic assessment system that appreciates the relativity & individuality of learning and values a broader range of skills than mere knowledge-recall on a single day at the end of Year 11. Criterion based evaluations would show employers what students have achieved  rather than limited comparative measures. It would also reduce the anxiety of exams that depend on short term memory and on how someone is feeling that day. 

Tier five would dramatically increase the agency of pupils to learn and teachers to teach so they feel a greater sense of control over their lives and a greater freedom to make decisions that are wise & healthy for them - alleviating the fear that can arise when we are not in control of our circumstances. Teachers, specifically, should be facilitators of learning, prioritising student well-being and fostering a sense of agency and belonging. A more flexible and equitable school system is essential for nurturing the holistic development of our children. Teacher well-being is equally important, as cherishing teachers is fundamental to student flourishing. Ideally, we should endeavour to achieve educational emancipation and the widespread availability of self-directed education.

There must also be a recognition that school is not the only setting wherein valuable learning occurs. We must take a much more cooperative approach with those for whom education other than at school (EOTAS) is the only feasible option and provide them with as much support as they need - as well as ensuring the freedom they require - for children & young people who experience EOTAS to thrive, and for their families not to feel in constant conflict with the system.

A competitive and rigid education system adds to the mental health burden on pupils. It is crucial to move away from a one-size-fits-all curriculum, as not all students benefit from this approach. Countries like Finland and Estonia offer models that emphasise creativity, critical thinking, and a focus on strengths. Many countries also focus on the importance of social and emotional learning to build resilience and positive relationships – the crux of lifelong wellbeing (UNESCO/ MGIEP, 2021, Roffey 2012).

However, reflecting on the principle of moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach, not all young people would benefit from the radical change of tiers four and especially five. Some young people would not thrive in a  school that takes this self-directed approach, for example - the uncertainty arising from the lack of structure in such a school may cause them to feel uncomfortable and unsupported. We have to ultimately reflect that education is a highly individual experience - and the right way” to do it varies from person-to-person, there is no universal right way” to educate - and, as the evidence suggests, when education fails to meet an individual’s unique needs, the consequences can be dire.

Hence why meaningful collaboration, co-production and active participation are embedded in the culture of well-being. Culture change can only happen voluntarily and will only take place if everyone feels ownership of the change - that it is in their control and is something they can take credit for and genuinely subscribe to.

Too often, change is done to people - we must make this change with people and share the power that can bring about this change as much as possible. 

In practice, Speight is currently working with various stakeholders, including the Big Change Charitable Trust, to test and pilot “Emoco” - short for emotional and cooperative - as an approach to actually doing this in schools.

By bringing everyone with us, we help to ensure nobody feels this change is being done to them, without their consent, and we break down barriers to support for this change.

In the long term, we hope that, by giving everyone ownership of the culture of wellbeing, we generate the popular demand and broader shift in thinking required to unlock tiers four and, eventually, five - by demonstrating the merits of the culture of wellbeing on a smaller, more achievable scale at first - and what can happen when everyone has their assets meaningfully valued and utilised to improve education.

It can be questioned whether jumping straight to tiers four and five would be an “ideal world” - as although it might drive the change quicker, support for it might waver (especially with tier five, since it is so far detached from the status quo) as people feel it is being done to them and undermine the long-term sustainability of such changes.  Yet policy-makers must be on board and willing to meaningfully share power with school communities to create this change.

To summarise, we must embed a culture of well-being in schools. The education system is falling in on itself due to the high pressure of the current culture. It must change - and we must bring everyone with us on this journey. 

This article and views reflected within it were provided and written by Andrew Speight and Dr Sue Roffey.

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