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Janet Goodliffe: "We knew that talking about mental health issues was just the first step – like any core value, it needed to be embedded and that meant keeping the conversation going"

A champion for wellbeing

Amid growing concern over student mental health, Southfield School has brought a doctor on board. Janet Goodliffe explains

Posted by Stephanie Broad | May 21, 2016 | Health & wellbeing

Mindfulness is all the rage. You only have to browse the magazine section in your local supermarket to be drawn into the spiralised world of colouring books and de-stressing designs built around butterflies, flowers and pretty patterns – and I am sure that when I first suggested the idea that we should employ a wellbeing champion in our school, my colleagues might have been forgiven for thinking I was either jumping on some kind of brain gym bandwagon or simply off with the fairies myself.

However, mindfulness is not just about colouring or meditation (laudable as both of these things are), it is about a way of seeing, and therefore a way of doing, which underpins the ultimate goal of health and wellbeing for all.

Of course, positive performance data is vital to our school’s success. But as the Youth Sport Trust puts it in The Power of PE: The Future of Physical Education, recognising “the importance of supporting our students’ wellbeing to achieve individual success, regardless of starting points, is essential if we are to truly develop well-balanced young people.”

An ongoing conversation

We are a trailblazer for PE 2020 Active Healthy Minds, a partnership between the Youth Sport Trust (YST), NHS Northamptonshire, the county sports network Northamptonshire Sport, and the five local school sports partnerships, and we are also school of the year in Talk Out Loud, a campaign focused on children and young people’s mental health in the county. So we already felt that we were taking positive steps to instil a greater awareness of mental health issues in our students. We knew that talking about mental health issues was just the first step – like any core value, it needed to be embedded and that meant keeping the conversation going.

Supported by the YST, we decided to appoint a health and wellbeing champion to spearhead a programme of support for students centred on their mental and physical health. We appointed Dr Eleanor Hartley last September and have not looked back since.

Eleanor’s role has been to establish good practice across the school, enabling students to be more mindful; to have healthy active minds in order to fulfil their academic potential and have positive attitudes about being active for life

Eleanor says: “Having just qualified as a doctor I was keen to get some wider community experience and I feel really strongly that working with young people is vital. I have a firm belief that PE and sport can have an impact on young people’s lives in a positive way and that developing self-awareness is key in confronting the toxins of self-criticism.”

There has been much media coverage recently about the state of students’ mental health and the impact this has on their wellbeing at school. According to Young Minds, a leading UK charity, the proportion of 15-16 year-olds reporting that they frequently feel anxious or depressed has doubled in the last 30 years, going from one in 30 to two in 30 for boys and one in 10 to two in 10 for girls. It is perhaps not surprising then that children with generalised anxiety disorder and those with depression have the most days away from school.

In research for the Prince’s Trust in 2012, almost half of young people with fewer than five GCSE grades A*-C said they “always” or “often” feel down or depressed, compared with 30% of young people who are more qualified.

Eleanor’s role has been to establish good practice across the school, enabling students to be more mindful; to have healthy active minds in order to fulfil their academic potential and have positive attitudes about being active for life.

She has been working across the curriculum, trialling a range of strategies to ‘keep the conversation going’ and tackle such issues as anxiety, stress, depression and self-doubt.

That’s not to suggest it has all been doom and gloom for our students – on the contrary, she worked closely with our literacy lead on developing a ‘Books that make you feel better’ theme for World Book Day, which led to some great contributions from staff and students alike.

Capitalise on the positive

In fact, from the outset, Eleanor has sought to capitalise on the positive. Early on, she carried out a ‘happiness’ survey across years seven to 11 and it produced some interesting results.

Students were encouraged to be honest and we made it clear that they were under no pressure to discuss it with anyone. But the response was positive and, following the survey, Eleanor established key stage three and four groups who meet at lunchtime, not only to discuss the various ways they can cope with what life throws at them but to get active.

“It’s been great to see,” she says. “The girls have been involved in cooking, playing sport just for the fun of it, arts and crafts and sharing different strategies with each other.”

She has identified a number of students whom she felt needed more individual ‘coaching’ and meets with them every fortnight. An after-school running club set up by Eleanor at the start of the year has also attracted many of these students.

Amy Jones, who is in year nine and has been taking part in the club since it started, said: “I would recommend it to anyone. It makes it fun to do sport; it’s not about competition, it’s about having a laugh and puts a smile on your face even after a hard day or when you’re feeling stressed.”

Other external programmes the girls are involved in include Girls Active and the Self Esteem Team.

Eleanor (right) with Southfield School students

Eleanor says: “One of the biggest challenges is getting across the idea that this is not just a ‘one-off’ or ‘done in a day’ solution that ticks a box. I have been lucky to find a school like Southfield which recognises that there is no ‘best fit’ for all students and one that has given me the freedom to try a range of strategies.”

As a hub school for the Kettering Schools Sports Partnership, we have also enrolled our first ever cohort of students on the Young Health Leaders programme and are currently working to develop a toolkit to help support other schools looking to enter into health and wellbeing for the long-run.

These are still early days for us but we have already learned the power of having an holistic approach, matching our students up with the right support. This isn’t just about giving a member of PE staff a teaching and learning responsibility to ‘take care of’ students’ mental health and wellbeing.

Nor can we ignore the impact of an ever-increasing workload on our teachers’ wellbeing. Surely, as leaders and teachers, we must be wary of allowing our own minds to become too full that we cease to be mindful ourselves?

Janet Goodliffe is Assistant Headteacher at Southfield School, a girls' academy in Kettering.

www.southfieldsch.co.uk

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