Huge thanks to Jessica Nash, who has kindly agreed to write this article for Axcis. She is the Head of Special Schools Network and Special Education Needs and Regional Lead – West Midlands. We are pleased to share this piece as part of mental health awareness week.
There’s a growing momentum around Social, Emotional and Mental Health needs. The introduction of this broad area of need into the 2014 SEND Code of Practice prompted a mixed response, but if it serves as a lever to increase the focus of decision-makers, then it’s a welcome impact.
The political interest is opportune, as it reflects a continuing professional concern even though emotional well-being may have seemed to drop into the shadows of our educational landscape whilst policy development has been concentrating on assessment, curriculum, school performance and accountability, school status, safeguarding, etc.
Professional frustration at the challenges of meeting the higher levels of well-being and mental health needs is clearly picked up by the national Children and Young People’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Taskforce, established in September 2014. Their report Future in Mind highlights the regional inequalities in specialist mental health provision and makes ten key recommendations, (mindful of the then forthcoming general election).
However, mental health issues remain a medical diagnosis – the revised SEND Code reminds us that schools clearly are part of the ‘Tier 1’ response along the continuum of well-being. The SEND Code requires schools to consider any causal factors that may lead to a pupil apparently presenting with special educational needs. There’s a clear emphasis on understanding the nature of individual need in order to work out what action the school needs to take, not to fit a pupil into a category. And so, some of the anxieties about the introduction of the SEMH area of need might be alleviated by the fact that successful schools have long been working systematically on the development of non-cognitive skills and on emotional and mental well-being as part of their universal provision for all pupils.
There’s a clear emphasis on understanding the nature of individual need in order to work out what action the school needs to take, not to fit a pupil into a category
These effective schools have recognised the impact of resilience and well-being on attainment outcomes, they are witness to the increasing pressures of 21st century living and their responsibility to support young people with managing the stress and pace of our world today. Even where a significant proportion of pupils are disadvantaged, schools work determinedly to address such socio-economic factors as generational unemployment, which can adversely affect their students’ well-being and attitudes to learning.
Ofsted has highlighted the quality of general provision that meets a wider range of needs (rather than always increasing additional provision) as being symptomatic of best practice, stating that lessons should be planned to address potential areas of difficulty and to remove barriers to pupil achievement. Schools doing this have developed, and invest in maintaining, an ethos which pro-actively develops self-awareness, scaffolds strategies for self-regulation and provides opportunities to practise social skills; this commitment to personal development is reflected in the curriculum, environment and systems across the whole community and at every level.
Recent examples shared by SENCos in SSAT’s national Schools Network include:
- the weekly custom of time limited exchanges of ‘what works well’ to be shared as an agenda item within phase or departmental meetings – reflecting their school’s solution-based approach and the leadership’s realisation that staff need to be resourced with practical ideas in order to remain solution-focused
- supporting every teacher with printed information of teaching strategies linked to the commonly occurring special educational needs identified through SENCo analysis of their pupil population
- providing simple profiles of pupils who may be identified / present with a special educational need and the strategies which the pupil and staff regard as being supportive
- identifying the most frequently occurring types of special educational need to drive professional development programmes and inform performance management
- externally commissioning a staff development session on communication by a qualified speech and language therapist, followed by a whole staff activity of drawing up a framework specifying the characteristics of a communication-friendly learning environment
- staff and governors collaborating to agree expectations of whole school and class climate, and suggesting practical ways of supporting the climate by revising / strengthening systems.
Such strategies as these, designed to enhance the quality of Wave 1 provision, have maximum impact where they are consistently implemented. They reflect the outline of school funding by Lorraine Peterson in the previous Axcis edition, which relies on the judicious allocation of Elements 1 and 2 to meet the majority of need for the majority of pupils. The recent National Children’s Bureau guidance Best practice framework to help schools to promote social and emotional well-being and recognise the early onset of mental health issues affecting young people offers a well-researched and accessible framework; similarly, SSAT’s Mind the Gap publication puts forward ideas and case studies in collected essays from teachers and academics to inform or enhance pupil well-being.
In the words of the national Children and Young People’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Taskforce, ‘there is no time to waste’, but as the political wheels turn and we wait for a response to the forceful evidence of the case for change, schools continue their endeavours to embed and enhance their provision for well-being and mental health.
Head of Special Schools Network and SEN
SSAT, the Schools, Students and Teachers Network