No Mental Health Crisis?

There was a long and protracted discussion on twitter yesterday about whether or not it was right to call current problems with children’s mental health a ‘crisis’ or not. Those working at the frontline of mental health services might well shake their heads at teachers  picking over semantic details or attempting to score patronising points over one another on the finer points of research methodologies. They probably would like to bang our heads together. But it threw up some interesting questions. Is there enough data to warrant the claim and is it any worse than before? And crucially, if so, is the education system to blame? For it is this latter point that seems to make those questioning the evidence most hot under the collar. Especially those who strongly support the changes that we’ve seen under this Conservative government.

One of the key points being made by those who wanted to see evidence for this so called crisis was the lack of reliable data – indeed this was a point made by the House of Commons Health Committee in 2014 who pointed to the fact that the last large scale ONS study into children’s mental health was in 2004 and a new study was needed to examine the current situation. The fact that this is still not forthcoming speaks, in my opinion, volumes about the government’s unwillingness to engage in this discussion at any meaningful level – perhaps because they worry it will reflect badly on their policies. There are currently surveys being done and we will have more reliable data emerging, but for now we can make some reasonable claims based on what we already know.

In 2004 1 in 10 children presented with mental health problems and 70% of those did not receive the intervention they needed. At the time, those figures were reported as a crisis – I think fairly. If 1 in 10 of our children were presenting with diabetes, we would certainly use that term. To put that into context, there are currently 500 children in the country diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. There are 11 million children in the country. So let’s call 1 in 10 a crisis. The question we need to ask now is has it improved and therefore we no longer have a crisis, or has it got worse? This is the bone of contention. What do we know?

Well, we know that between 2012 and 2013, Childline reported a 116% increase on the year before on children being counselled about suicidal thoughts. That represented 35,000 children, 5800 of whom had previously attempted and survived suicide.

Last year 201 children between the ages of 10 and 19 committed suicide, an increase of almost 11% on the year before. And there have been increases, year on year since 2007 – coinciding with the onset of the recession. Overall, however, numbers are slightly down on 2004. This might support the idea that things have not got worse since 2004. But that ignores the large increase in reports of suicidal thoughts and attempts. It may well be that fewer children are dying than in 2004, but more are trying. To describe these increases, as one did, as ‘marginal’ is quite shockingly cavalier.

Still, we might argue that there is still little evidence that things are worse. Unless we turn our attention to self harming rates. Between 2012 and 2014 the NHS reported a 70% increase in 10-15 year olds attending A&E for injuries relating to self harm. It is, of course impossible to know the total figure for self harm as most children do not seek medical help and try to hide their injuries from others, but a WHO report in 2015 found that 1 in five children self harmed –  a threefold increase since 2005.

An ATL survey of headteachers reported that 79% of them were seeing increases in children reporting suicidal thoughts. The headteachers are not diagnosing here – they are simply reporting what they and their staff are being told by children. A 2012 Princes Trust survey reported that 30% of children felt depressed “all” or “most” of the time – this would suggest a threefold increase on the data we have from 2004, a figure also supported by Mick Cooper, on the Mental Health task force group. All these figures point to an increase in the numbers of young people suffering with mental health issues since 2004. And I’ve not even started on the reports from those working at the frontline of treating these young people.

Like, for example, the 54% increase in the prescription of anti-depressants to young people in the years between 2005-2013 – at the very same time as it was becoming more widely accepted that counselling treatments were more appropriate for children. The House of Commons Health Committee report (2014) makes it clear that the increased pressure on CAHMS services is not only down to funding cuts, but increased demand. Not only are demands for prescriptive treatments increasing, but also therapeutic ones. It is hard to argue the case then, that the rise of one is compensating for a fall in the other.

While there may not be a comprehensive set of ONS data since 2004, the picture created by combining all these smaller scale pieces of evidence creates a compelling case that there is a significant issue to be tackled. Arguing over whether or not to call this a crisis is immaterial. Making the case, piece by piece against each individual section of data is sophistry. The picture shows that even in 2004 10% of our young people were in crisis. Recent data suggests this may now be as high as 30%. 20% of our young people fail to reach the expected standards in reading – and look at the time, energy and money spent on addressing that figure. Only a fool would not consider this information important and significant. But what of the causes?

It seems to me that those most keen to deny that there is a crisis in mental health are those most keen to defend the current education system. But is it the case that these problems are caused by education? It’s impossible to say with any certainty. For example, my husband who counsels young people in distress, says that many of them come to him concerned about exam pressure. But in most of those cases they also report fears of letting their parents down. To what extent is the exam the problem or the parent? It’s impossible to say. What we do know is that there is a growing trend of children referring to school as a significant cause of their stress. We need to be careful here to recognise that while a child may highlight a predominant concern, the likelihood is that there are multiple and complex reasons creating the circumstances under which they may feel depressed. Nevertheless…

  • 29% of teenage suicides can be attributed to examination stress according to a report by The University of Manchester – the second biggest dominant cause. Again this must be reported with the caveat that there will have been other contributory causes.
  • In 2014 Childline reported that for the first time ever, school and exam stress came into the top ten causes of significant stress for children. Way below bullying and family issues, but still a cause. In the 16-18 age group, there was a 30% increase in the number of depressed teenagers citing school/exam stress as the main cause of their distress.

It would be foolish and self serving to claim that education is creating a mental health crisis. But it would be more than fair to say that it is increasingly a contributing factor. And certainly that it’s not helping to reduce the difficulties that young people are having.

So let’s stop arguing about who can make the cleverest argument. Who can win. It’s childish and demeaning. Even one child thinking about killing themselves is a child too many. Let’s instead push harder to demand comprehensive data. Let’s do what we can to help those young people who are presenting with problems and difficulties – pushing for better services, considering whether or not we can employ full time counsellors in our schools, remembering that stressed people don’t learn very well. We all have a role to play in this. And bickering is not part of it.



Train more teachers than we need?

I just read this in The Telegraph outlining ideas for solving the teacher recruitment crisis by training more teachers than we actually need. “Almost everybody who completes their training who wants a teaching job gets one. And a significant proportion should not. That’s a very blunt statement,” says Mr. Bevan, Headteacher at a selective grammar school who clearly didn’t leave university with £50,000 worth of debt.

The subtext of his statement, which frankly is not just blunt, but stupid, is that we are training teachers who are not up to the job. If this were true, the solution would surely lie in better teacher training – not in creating lots of unemployed people already up to their eyeballs in debt. I’ll come to that thorny issue later.

There is, however, a case to be made for a slight oversupply. Not based on the assumption that trained teachers are not fit to teach, but based on the reality that having done their training, some choose not to teach. Government policy has not helped this one little bit. Take bursaries for example, which came under fire last week in a report into the very poor quality of tracking and monitoring of their effectiveness. At the moment, there is no expectation that having taken your tens of thousands of pounds to train, that you will actually teach. No contract stating that you’ll give even just two years to the classroom. One of my Science trainees in a SCITT – a brilliant young woman who passed with flying colours in every aspect of the course, paid off her student debt with her bursary and flew off to New Zealand to take up a job there. And a young trainee in another SCITT who took part in Northern Rocks this year, wrote in her postcard to the Secretary of State that of the 20 in her group, 5 had chosen not to teach at the end of it. This is the reason we may need some extra places. Not so that we can assign people to a scrap heap.

The article points to Canada as an example of where this works. This is why many of our schools are full of Canadians. I’m not sure how it benefits a country to go to the expense of training young people who then go and pay their taxes abroad. And I’m not sure how ethical it is to tempt people into paying for a vocational course when you have deliberately made it harder for them to work. Add to that the fact that tuition fees for teacher training in Canada are around £3,000 and not £9,000, not to mention lower housing costs and you see this is simply not a fair comparison.

Instead of these simplistic, ill thought out quick fixes, we need a systematic cultural shift in the way we view teacher training and retention. Money needs to be spent on keeping teachers and that means tackling workload seriously. The bottom line is we need to finally create a system in which marking, planning and administration time are properly resourced and accounted for. It’s not cheap, I know. But then neither is turning schools into academies or throwing tens of thousands of pounds at graduates who don’t even teach.

We need to stop expecting recently trained teachers to be perfect, fully formed classroom practitioners and invest heavily in their ongoing training and professional development. And if we really think about what we try to pack into their teaching, we’d move to a two year training model – something like this.B7uICQMIAAAmEug

Whatever we do, making it harder for young graduates to find work, settle down and start paying their taxes is a gross abdication of responsibility and a foolish way to build a future education system that has hope and aspiration at its heart.

Northern Rocks 2016

In the Autumn of 2013, Emma and I were having a twitter chat via direct message.

“Did you go to Southampton today?” she asked

“I couldn’t – it’s so far and I’ve already been to two events in London this year. We should do something in the North.”

“Let’s do it!” she said. And Northern Rocks was born.

Yesterday, for the third year running, we had 500 teachers coming from every corner of the United Kingdom, to celebrate what it is to teach. And for the third year running, I sit here overawed by the passion, commitment and sheer generosity of spirit that characterises this very special event.

We never have to beg anyone to come to speak. They offer in their droves. And this year, taking on board constructive feedback from last year, we ensured that we had a 50/50 gender split. In fact, in the end, we had slightly more women than men if truth be told, but I won’t apologise for tipping the scales the other way. And we made sure we had BME representation from amazing speakers who completely disprove that it’s somehow difficult to create more inclusive events. But true inclusion is so much more than counting colour or gender. It’s about giving voices to those who might not normally have the opportunity to speak. And so this year, we opened our conference not with a big name, but with a big message. Chris Kilkenny spoke for the first 15 minutes to a silent hall of open mouthed delegates, some of whom were weeping, of the experiences he had growing up in abject poverty with a mother who was a heroin addict in Edinburgh. He spoke of the need for someone to have lifted his head up and given him experiences that would have made him look beyond his community. He pleaded with us to remember that every time we ask for trip money, ingredients money, equipment money, we ensure that the very children who need it the most, are excluded from activities. He told us how he would have loved to take Food Technology at GCSE; how useful it would have been to him. But that he couldn’t because he knew he’d be asked to buy ingredients. He reminded us that those most keen to hide the reality of their poverty, will hide in plain sight, masking truth with clowning or disruptive behaviour. Later he tells me that his overriding memory of childhood was hunger. These days, Chris works with young people like him, doing his best to try to keep them in school and on track. He is paid £14,000 per year. His biggest challenge in life is keeping a roof over the head of his two year old child and making sure he doesn’t go hungry.

Next to him on the panel was Kier Mather – a Year 13 pupil from Hull who spoke with such passion and articulacy about the exam factory experience of school that he felt was ripping creativity out of his life. He told us of a teacher he likes and admires, collapsing in tears with stress in front of her class some weeks ago and how he struggles to understand how any politician can find the workload and pressures teachers face acceptable. I sat next to these two brilliant young men, whose life experiences could not be more different, but who were united in a sense of social justice and I felt such a sense of hope and optimism for the future that it was hard to answer my own questions on the panel.

Natalie Scott, in her lovely blog on NRocks spoke of the “sparkle” that seems to characterise this event over others. That sparkle is in the eyes and smiles of the people who attend. People like Kieran Judge and his dad. I spent Friday morning with Kieran and his cohort of SCITT trainees who I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the past year. At the end of our final session, Kieran came over to me and asked if it would be ok if he brought his dad to Northern Rocks. “He retired a few years ago,” he said, “but he loved teaching.”

Throughout the day, as a I walked between sessions, I saw this dad and his lad sitting together in workshops and debates, soaking up the day and a lump came to my throat. Here was a man, four years retired, but still so passionate about education that he’d come to a conference, and it was beautiful to see him sitting with his son, just setting out on his career. They were so full of joy at the end of the day when they came to thank me, that it seemed to me to epitomise what we’ve tried to achieve. Northern Rocks is not just CPD. You don’t need CPD when you’re retired. It’s that and more. It’s a reminder of what we do and why we do it. It’s a reminder that teaching is first and foremost, an altruistic profession, full to the brim of people trying to build a better world. It’s a profession that will never be motivated by targets and performance related pay, but by recognition of the heart and soul work we do and a simple thank you would go a long way. If we really want to keep teachers in the profession, we would do well to remember that.

Thank you to all who came, spoke, attended, played, laughed, cried, danced and thought. Thanks for throwing money into our buckets and making a refugee’s dream of attending university a reality. Thank you for tweeting your excitement and enthusiasm before, during and after the event. I’m sorry the wi-fi wasn’t good, but it didn’t matter. We didn’t need trending affirmation. Your joy was visible from space



Back to Nonsense.

My friend’s little boy was born in July. Soon he will do his phonics check along with the children who are almost a year older than him. He likes books a lot but he has less time to read at the moment because he’s spending a lot of time doing his Phonics Check homework. For example, last night he had a sheet of 40 words. Forgive me, not words. I’m not quite sure what to call them because most of them aren’t real words. Anyway, having sounded them out, he had to then underline all those he thought were not real words. He was mostly successful. His Mum, not familiar with the processes of primary education, asks me “what is the point of this?” I open a bottle of wine…

There are thousands of words in the English language that would be unfamiliar to most six year olds. Imagine how much more fruitful it would be to tell them that all the words on the list are real. To ask them to identify instead which were familiar and unfamiliar? To then go on to choose five or more, find out their definitions and try to use them in conversation? One of the biggest barriers for children educationally is vocabulary. An unfamiliar word on an exam question can throw a student into panic. And it was well documented this year how familiarity with words like ancestor became synonymous with success on the reading test.

While I don’t support the notion of a core knowledge curriculum as such, I do very much believe that children should have access in school to a rich range of knowledge and vocabulary in order to build up their cultural capital. The nonsense words on the phonics check distract teachers, parents and pupils away from this much greater and more important goal. It’s time we moved away from single minded, silver bullet thinking, and consider instead how a pedagogical process can achieve multiple aims which ultimately benefit the child and not, as Nick Gibb admitted recently, simply hold a school to account.