To change a school’s culture takes real leadership. When a young, newly-appointed head teacher approached Place2Be, she had already been battling for some time in a socially deprived area split by gang lines, often based on family feuds which went back generations.
Her school was an amalgamation of three older schools where the dividing lines had long been drawn and the task she faced – of bringing the school community together – seemed insurmountable.
The school struggled with extreme aggressive behaviour – from both children and their parents. Teaching staff were embattled, resorting to over-strictness, harsh punishment regimes and regular exclusions, and many of them were not coping.
To create something very different to this – a positive learning environment where pupils and staff had respect for each other – in such a harsh, thankless environment was not going to be easy. There was certainly very little evidence of respect or positivity outside the school gates.
Changing a culture is no easy task. Old ways die hard, and anyway they were generally there for a reason. In this school, staff were stressed, under-resourced, often frightened and spent as much time on crowd control as on actual teaching. In fact, they were fighting for control.
As one classroom teacher said: “I was in no way prepared for this. Teacher education emphasises the positive aspects of teaching. There wasn’t much of that around.”
Institutions – being groupings of people – can have poor mental health. Recognising this, Place2Be offers a whole school approach – counselling and therapeutic support to children and parents, but also consultancy support to teaching and school staff.
With our help, this head teacher introduced small, non-combative changes at first, drawing clear lines about what was and what wasn’t acceptable behaviour. When conflicts arose, time was given to listen to both sides – so that the culture of reactiveness and instant punishment was interrupted.
Staff were encouraged to talk issues through first with her, then with each other, in a non-judgmental way that was new.
Therapeutic provision – and simply more time for talking and listening – was made for children in-school, so that they could learn different ways to resolve problems and conflict. Parents were encouraged into school with coffee mornings, and support for their issues started to be introduced.
Culture change needn’t be sudden or traumatic, but it does take clear insight and wisdom.
All of this happened outside of what is traditionally thought of as teaching, but it stands to reason that if we cannot support and ensure all our young peoples’ mental health during their 13 years in the education system, something is not working.
The numbers of newly qualified teachers leaving the profession early also speaks of this lack of support and expertise. Education must find new ways to embrace the mental health agenda. Closing the attainment gap is a huge issue in Scotland, but that is not the only gap we need to address.
Head teachers like this one, a mental health champion for her whole school, need the tools and support to guide their schools towards health.
Place2Be recently launched its Mental Health Champions programmes in Scotland, equipping school leaders and classroom teachers in Glasgow and Ayrshire with strategies for supporting emotional wellbeing across the whole school community. Find out more about how to apply by visiting – www.place2be.org.uk/train
Jonathan Wood, national manager for Scotland at Place2Be