Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Emotional rescue

Students working

It's clear that the number of students affected by stress and emotional health worries is growing. Dan Guiney shares the results of a project starting in year 10 to promote positive mental health, which has made an impact on both wellbeing and attainment.

We tend to see mental health issues and strategies for raising attainment as entirely unrelated issues in schools but, in my experience, this is far from being the case.

Ensuring students leave 11-16 education as well-rounded citizens with a sense of social and emotional awareness is not only good practice, it is best practice. The obligation to nurture children's wellbeing and improve their life chances is explicit in the Every Child Matters agenda.

For this reason the work promoted under child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) is particularly pertinent.

Dereham Neatherd High is a suburban, high achieving 11-18 mixed comprehensive in Norfolk which, along with other schools and pupil referral units from across the county, signed up to a CAMHS project in 2006.

One in ten

Research by Raymond Waller published in Fostering Child and Adolescent Mental Health in the Classroom in 2006 found that ten per cent of students suffer mental health related illness at any given point.

In our own case, data gathered using the B/G STEEM model revealed that mental health in year 10 at Dereham was grossly strained. Relationships, appearance, careers and the worry of examinations were concurrently prevalent in the muddled minds of many of the 15 year olds surveyed.

Student awareness of mental health was largely based on negatives and few perceived it as relevant to their own school lives. There appeared, however, to be a latent yearning to overcome this. As one student wrote:

A chance to shine would be a treat, For you are the one with the world at your feet. This is the most important time, For you to learn, you're in your prime, Make sure your hidden gifts are seen, For you are that ghost, just turned fifteen.

In light of our findings, and having consulted the school's improvement and development plan, consultations were held with a behaviour and attendance adviser, educational psychologist and classroom teachers from other schools who had signed up for the project.

It was agreed that a strategic effort would be made to promote positive mental health at Key Stage 4 at Dereham.

12-week plan

A 12-week scheme of learning was devised and embedded into the pastoral system to raise awareness. Students were stimulated by taking part in activities such as:

  • placing different emotions on maps of the school building

  • working through 'clean' and 'dirty' anger cards

  • completing 'diamond nine' exercises which teach students how to prioritise

  • expressing views of where and how they experienced high stress levels through Jenny Mosley's model of quality circle time

  • producing personalised, solutionfocused stress-handling targets

As one student reported at the end of the taught programme: "Healthy schools is about more than preparing for the Olympics... it's about healthy minds too and ensuring you keep happy and don't let your stress get on top of you."

It was paramount that these issues were made relevant to specific student stresses such as exams, which W Wall described as "a major obstacle in the way of a smooth development".

Students were therefore taken off timetable to work with senior staff and advanced skills teachers to discuss revision strategies, relaxation techniques, and also for a simulation results day following mock examinations.

The school library was stocked with audio and written material to supplement these activities and a quiet room was provided.

Another concern from the B/G STEEM results was that many students felt they did not have a 'voice'. We decided to adopt Raymond Waller's strategy of 'self-management' to increase levels of student self-advocacy and to create student-centred vehicles for genuine self-expression.

To cater for this a leavers' book committee was set up early in year 11.

"All students had a real say in how the book was published, how many pages were in it, who won awards, how much it should cost, who and what should go in it, and, of course, in writing their own personal and uncensored statement," said one student.

"It was our project and it was our success," said another.

Fifty-four students joined the focus group and every student in the year contributed with photographs and comments. In particular, the nature of the project allowed for greater expression from groups who, research has shown, have higher rates of mental health problems, such as looked-after children.

Multi-layered friendships

In Mental Health for Adolescents Nikkelly states that the "ability to relate well with other people" is a "desirable characteristic of mental health".

Providing opportunities for multi-layered friendships was an essential element which the project's anti-bullying and prom committees helped cater for.

"It gave us all a chance to work with people from other sets, year groups, teachers, parents, and outside agencies ranging from county advisers through to fire engine hire companies" said one student.

Previously, top set students had mingled with top sets, upper school students with upper school (particularly in light of a split lunchtime) and so forth.

Finally, the CAMHS work helped create opportunities for staff to promote and reward student non-academic success and allow for greater self-expression. It included awarding certificates for talents such as listening skills, working with younger children, contributing to the wider community, as well as fundraising.

Staff could reward students with prizes such as parties, flowers, hats and other tokens which showed that school life is more than examination certificates.

The prom at the end of the key stage represented almost the whole year group. Students arrived at school for their final celebration in limousines, police vehicles, fire engines, horses, Ferraris, and, in one case, even a tractor - pleasing forms of individuality and self-expression.

The school policy of forbidding students to write on shirts on their last day was abandoned to promote this sense of freedom.

Attainment success

The CAMHS project required a lot of work and needed to show a direct link between promoting positive mental health and improved results. This has now been achieved: 63 per cent of students gained A*-C grades and 36 per cent achieved above their target grades, up 12 per cent on the previous year.

We hope this success in attainment will help us to overcome any remaining obstacles which might prevent the work being embedded across all key stages.

Issues include getting all staff on board and raising the time, money and planning required to fully train staff as tier one mental health professionals.

The project had to be evidence-based for the local authority and Ofsted. Quantifying the success of the project was always going to be a challenge, since measuring mental health means measuring an intangible.

However, when the findings were delivered in October 2007 to more at a mental health conference some pleasing outcomes had emerged.

By the end of the two-year project student awareness of their own mental health had increased by 21 per cent. Student perception was changing into one in which mental health was regarded as another limb which had to be managed, rather like a muscle.

Moreover, there was a 15 per cent increase in students who felt they had control of their own school life. Students could also express their emotions in a number of ways.

And 36 per cent of students achieved at least one GCSE grade above their targets - a rise of 24 per cent on the previous year. Non-statistical data reported an even more comprehensive overview of success.

Photographs taken throughout the year were posted on the school's website and several online blogs gave students the opportunity to feedback in a more 'open-ended' format.

One comment read: "these five years have bin great and i will neva forget this skel i have had ma ups nd downs but i always pulled through see ya in the future love yaz all x".

Stickley and Basset are correct to state that educationalists should provide "hope, encouragement, therapy, and the kind of relationships that can bring about lasting change".

Helping young people become positive students who can manage their stresses at Key Stage 4 and beyond should be seen as fundamental, rather than something to meet national directives and satisfy line managers.

What's more, the notion that attainment and mental health are mutually exclusive concepts is a false one. The CAMHS project showed students can indeed leave 11-16 education as well-balanced individuals with a clutch of good grades ready to conquer the world.

Dan Guiney is a head of year at Dereham Neatherd High School, an 11-16 school in Norfolk with about 1,300 students.


Waller, R. J. (ed.): Fostering Child and Adolescent Mental Health in the Classroom, Sage (2006)

Mosley, J: Quality Circle Time, Cambridge, LDA (1996)

Wall, W. D: Education and Mental Health, UNESCO (1964)

Nicholas, B, Sophie, R, and Wurr, C: Looked-after children in residential homes, Pastoral Care in Education, vol. 8, issue 2 (May 2003)

Nikkelly, A. G : Mental Health for Adolescents, Charles C Thomas (1966)

Stickley, T, and Basset, T: Teaching Mental Health, John Wiley and Sons Ltd (2007)

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