Here’s a recent article I wrote which was published in “Lead” – the magazine for NEU leadership members – in July 2021.
Vice-chair of the NEU’s National Leadership Council Josie Whiteley talks about being a coach for the School Mental Health Award.
In the past 16 months, leaders have demonstrated incredible resilience and adaptability. But, as we recover from the Covid crisis, is your school or college now in a better or a worse place from a wellbeing perspective?
The School Mental Health Award (SMHA) may help you find out.
Since it was launched in 2017, more than 1,000 schools have either gained or are working towards it. It is based on a framework of eight competencies allowing schools to evaluate their mental health practices, identify gaps, and introduce or strengthen existing policies and initiatives.
They include: leadership and strategy, structure, support and culture for staff and pupils, CPD and working with families. A bronze, silver or gold award is given upon successful completion. For bronze, schools need to show how changes have made an impact in the school. For gold, there will need to be evidence that a school is sharing good practice nationally.
I’ve been an SMHA coach since April 2020 and work with more than 70 schools (and rising).
I’ve heard from leaders about the different ways of working to support mental health and wellbeing during the pandemic. This includes regular check-in phone calls, food delivery programmes, virtual meetings and information sessions for parents.
In many cases these changes have led to better relationships with pupils, parents and colleagues. Working towards the SMHA, with help from a coach, supports leaders in thinking through how these changes can become embedded – and they are very keen to do this.
An increasing number of schools are, for example, creating an area of their website dedicated to supporting parents’ mental health. Many others are updating mental health and wellbeing and behaviour policies in response to the pandemic.
So, what’s my role?
Starting with a one-hour, virtual coaching conversation, usually with the head or deputy and the mental health lead, I pose a series of questions.
A key one is: how does the SLT know what staff need?
If I’m met with a perplexed look, this then leads to a discussion of the value of asking people what they need rather than imposing ‘a relaxing, de-stressing yoga session’ that will be someone’s worst nightmare.
After the coaching conversation, I’m available via email or schools can book another meeting. Most choose not to, though, because the probing questions in the first meeting have usually inspired clarity of thought, and often a few lightbulb moments.
As a coach, I’ve been discussing some common themes with schools. The extra workload generated by the pandemic has been a strain for staff. For those in secondaries the responsibility this summer for grading – handed to them at short notice, with little Government guidance and no additional help – has piled on pressure.
Leaders understand this and have cut back in areas including non-vital meetings, duplication of data and email overload. Some schools have introduced a “buddy” scheme to encourage colleagues to support one another, others are offering free counselling services.
Another recurring theme is the need to develop governors’ understanding of mental health issues among staff and students. In many cases, schools don’t realise this is needed until they start the award. Training for governors is especially important now, when poor mental health has increased because of the pandemic.
Once the school begins working towards the award, ongoing support is available via a private Facebook group for mental health leads, where they ask questions and share good practice and resources. A year later we have a final meeting. We discuss and celebrate the school’s journey. I love seeing how proud staff are to present their evidence for the award, and to hear them talk with real enthusiasm about the impact of changes.
To find out more, please contact Josie on: Josie.Whiteley@neu.org.uk
© Copyright Josie Whiteley 2021. All rights reserved.