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Why mental health is as important as physical health at school

Ann Jackson, Deputy Head, Pastoral at Dauntsey’s School in Devizes, explains why wellbeing is at the forefront of the school’s mind and the steps they’ve taken to ensure students feel happy, secure and supported during these trying times

Last year #wellness #selfcare and #selflove were some of the most popular hashtags on Instagram. Wellbeing has, quite rightly, taken centre stage in many conversations, not least within education.  

Teaching pupils to recognise and talk about their own mental, emotional and spiritual health has become as important as their academic studies and for many schools, this has shaped a new way of thinking.

Mark Lascelles, The Head Master of Dauntsey’s, has a mission that every pupil should leave Dauntsey’s having done better there than they would anywhere else.  

How we define ‘better’ is, of course, dependent on the individual; success may come on the sports field or the stage, in the classroom or DT workshop.  Whilst the journey and destination will differ, the foundations to get there will be the same.  

In order for pupils to flourish at school and make the most of the opportunities and experiences presented to them, their wellbeing must be a key focus.  Good days and bad days are part of life, but the pressures of social media, heightened expectations of academic results and navigating a path through teenage years can make school life a particularly challenging time.  Add to this the Covid-19 pandemic, and it is no surprise that the past two years have seen an increased focus on supporting mental wellbeing.

Two years ago, it was reported that one in nine six to 16-year-olds reported mental health concerns, this has now risen to one in six.  For 17–19-year-olds, it has risen from one in ten to one in six.     

At Dauntsey’s, our pupils’ wellbeing is at the heart of everything we do.  From the moment they arrive, children realise they are joining a community that knits together staff, pupils and parents, a community founded on respect, responsibility and relationships.

How Dauntsey’s supports the wellbeing of students

1. The House system

At the heart of this community is the House system, which creates a feeling of belonging and collective responsibility.  Each House is a community of its own where pupils can mix with other year groups and, most importantly, have fun under the guidance of the Housemaster or Housemistress and their team of House Tutors.  Any pupil with worries or concerns knows that they can turn to their Housemaster or Housemistress, their tutor as well as their teachers, a school counsellor or our peer Listening Service. 

2. The mental health and wellbeing coordinator

Throughout their time with us, pupils can informally explore and discuss what is happening around and to them in a safe environment through our Complementary Curriculum Programme, as well as having the opportunity to hear from visiting speakers, who are experts in their fields. 

Our mental health and wellbeing coordinator, Greg James, is tasked with ensuring that Dauntsey’s is well placed to recognise problems and provide support as and when it is needed – his mission is to ensure that mental health is on a par with physical health when it comes to wellbeing.  Greg’s goal is to do away with any stigma around mental health and to get people talking more openly about it, not least boys, who are typically more reluctant to discuss their feelings. Greg is also a MHFA England accredited instructor, delivering the Youth Mental Health First Aid course to staff and pupils, in order to raise awareness, and to build the knowledge and skills to support each other within the school community.

3. Working closely with parents

Parents of course play a crucial role too.  In loco parentis doesn’t mean replacing a pupil’s parents but representing them and working alongside them.  The more closely we can work together, the more we can know and understand our pupils and, therefore, the more perceptive we are when there are changes in behaviour or mood.  That means we can provide early intervention and support where necessary.  

It helps that many families send all of their children to Dauntsey’s, which means that we establish extended relationships with families and create strong bonds of trust.  

4. The Student Voice online platform

Even with the very best support in place, nowhere is immune from what is happening in society.  

If anxiety and stress are issues in the wider world, it is reasonable to expect that they will be present at school.  For example, body image increasingly affects both boys and girls, who are all under the spotlight of social media.  Pupils are a great help: they know what the trends are within their peer group and can sometimes spot potential problems more quickly than staff.  

In recognition of a barrier that can exist, preventing pupils from reporting concerns or seeking help from adults, we have launched the ‘Student Voice’.  This is an online platform enabling pupils to seek help and guidance, as well as provide feedback on their experience of life at school.  It has been introduced to empower students to use their voice, knowing that they will be heard and listened to. 

5. The Listening Service

The Listening Service at Dauntsey’s was developed by a group of Upper School pupils, who wanted to receive training in order to be the first point of contact for other pupils to talk through any problems or worries.   There can be many reasons that young people may not feel that they want to approach an adult initially and that talking to a fellow pupil can sometimes be easier. 

Today, we have 28 volunteer listeners ranging from those in the Fourth Form (Year 10) to Upper Sixth (Year 13) pupils.  Each volunteer receives training focussing on issues surrounding safeguarding and confidentiality, and guidance on how to provide support and when to refer pupils to a counsellor or a member of the pastoral team.  Each listener is assigned a buddy within the group so that there is someone with whom they can discuss individual cases and agree the best course of action.  

Listeners wear a silver badge on their jacket or blazer to help identify them.  Posters are displayed around the school with contact details for all the listeners, along with the school safeguarding leads and counsellors.  

As well as the initial listener training, we hold regular meetings, dinners and workshops with outside speakers and listeners recently attended a pupil-led mental health conference that provided useful insights.

Striking a balance at school

Within school, it is about striking a balance between providing care for our pupils, whilst giving them space to grow as individuals.  From the outset, we help each pupil find out more about themselves, enjoy success beyond the classroom, make lasting friendships and experience inevitable failures in a safe context. 

To build self-esteem, pupils are encouraged to make the most of the many wonderful opportunities here.  Our extra-curricular programmes, especially adventure education, are designed to promote resilience, confidence, encourage tolerance and can promote the relationship between hard work and great results.  

Our goal is to equip pupils to deal with whatever may confront them, both now and in the future, and to be there to offer support and advice when it is needed.  Ultimately, it is about equipping them with the tools to leave us as happy, secure young people who are ready to take their place in the world.

Find out more about Dauntsey’s

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