By Alethea Cope

The Department for Education has announced that schools will be trialling several mental health promotion programmes in schools, including mindfulness, relaxation techniques, and programmes teaching children about how to maintain good mental health.

The announcement follows the Prime Minister’s pledge to prioritise mental health. And it recognises the evidence of the critical role of schools and the high proportion of mental health problems that begin in childhood. 

The proposed trials also appear to complement the ‘whole school approach’ (discussed in yesterday’s health and education select committee), where mental wellbeing is:

owned by school staff, threaded throughout the curriculum and embedded in school culture… backed up by policies, good links with parents and outside agencies…

The announcement suggests that the value of nurturing a child’s mental health, as well as their educational attainment, is finally being recognised.

Mindfulness programmes have displayed promising results (see Clarke et al 2015). However, as highlighted at yesterday’s select committee and in our research, many other programmes have a similar or stronger evidence-base. It’s therefore important, when resources are stretched, to ensure we invest in what we know makes the biggest improvement to children’s wellbeing.

In addition, whilst reaching out to every child with a universal approach can be helpful, to be truly effective it needs to be complemented by targeted services for children already displaying signs of mental health difficulties. A key example is parenting programmes which, when targeted at families who need them most, have an excellent record of helping children develop healthier behaviour. We found that these programmes produce savings of £3 for every £1 invested.

The development of mental health interventions in schools is a welcome step forward. However, any benefits generated will be compromised if children come home to parents who struggle to access the mental health support they need. We must ensure that children’s mental health is not addressed in a vacuum, but within a wider context which recognises the significant impact of family influences an circumstances, including poverty,  on children (highlighted in our recent briefing on fatherhood).

The DfE’s announcement also comes at a time of proposed cuts to school budgets, which appear to risk hitting the most deprived parts of the country hardest. Concerns have been voiced by council members from across the country that these cuts may undermine efforts to develop children’s wellbeing. Some areas are set to have school budgets cut by £500 per pupil per year and there are concerns that support for children’s wellbeing will be badly affected.

Our ongoing work with Place2Be is highlighting the key role that teachers play in brokering the right support for children’s mental health. From their unique perspective, they recognise that the right mental health support can improve a child’s attainment levels.

Children require effective, timely support within school to prevent the development or escalation of mental health problems. This requires a whole-school approach in every primary and secondary school nationwide which meets the needs of staff and students with appropriate investment.