23 October 2019

Schools and colleges have profound and lasting effects on children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing yet too often this is left to chance, according to research published by Centre for Mental Health today.

Making the grade, by Kadra Abdinasir, is one of a series of reports produced for The Health Foundation’s Young People’s Future Health Inquiry and is produced with the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition.

It finds that educational environments, timetables, lessons and cultures all have an effect on the mental health of children and young people. From bullying to exam stress, schools, colleges and universities can be stressful places, especially for young people facing the greatest adversity. But they can also be good for mental health – for example through teaching life skills and creative subjects.

Making the grade shows how schools, colleges and universities can create environments that support better mental health. This includes creating safe spaces and enough time to play and making it easy to seek help for mental health. More space on the curriculum for creative and cultural education and less of a focus on exams would also help to improve mental health. And greater attention to the wellbeing of school and college staff would help to create a healthier atmosphere for students too.

Making the grade calls on the Government to ensure funding for schools, colleges and universities enables them to create a healthy, nurturing environment, especially for children and young facing the biggest disadvantages and adversities. All UK schools should be supported to teach children about how to look after mental health and to develop life skills. And exam systems should be reviewed to tackle the ‘teach to test’ culture in many schools.

Report author Kadra Abdinasir said: "Schools and colleges all have a huge influence on children and young people’s mental health – for better or worse. Worries about exams, bullying and transitions between schools, colleges and universities can be extremely stressful, and more so for those already struggling with their mental health.

“Governments in all parts of the UK are waking up to this. More schools are teaching about mental health and there is more support available within schools and universities for those in difficulty. But at the same time, we have seen the erosion of creative learning and opportunities for exercise in schools with a relentless focus on ‘core’ academic subjects. And rates of exclusion continue to be highest for young people from the most marginalised groups and communities, often as a result of poor mental health.

“So we need to go a step further and put mental health at the heart of a good education. Supporting better mental health can help with attainment and give young people more life skills for the future. This means schools need to be judged for how well they support wellbeing and not just exam results. And teachers need to be supported with their own mental health to reduce stress and create a safe and healthy environment for young people to learn and develop.”

Jo Bibby, Director of Health at The Health Foundation, said: “The culture in schools is not something which has been associated with the effects it has on health. However, the tremendous impact it has on the futures of our young people is often underestimated. These recommendations clearly set out where Government can take action now to secure the health of our young people for the future.”


The report is free to download here