Mental health

Pupil wellbeing: What can schools realistically do?

With the right focus, policy can empower schools to help tackle the youth mental health crisis, says Loic Menzies

With the right focus, policy can empower schools to help tackle the youth mental health crisis, says Loic Menzies

21 Aug 2023, 5:00

Everyone is talking about the pressing issue of youth mental health and wellbeing, but no one seems to know how to solve it.

Given how much time pupils spend in school, it’s no surprise the finger often gets pointed at teachers and the education system when it comes to solving the current crisis. But lift up the bonnet and there’s more to the issue than meets the eye. Fortunately, doing so points the way towards a distinctive role schools could play in future.

Studies tend to show that schools only have limited influence over pupils’ wellbeing and mental health. Family relationships, material wellbeing, health and community context are all far more important. But none of that’s to say schools can’t help.

One of the most compelling voices articulating a distinctive role for schools in supporting young people’s wellbeing is a researcher called Tania Clarke. As part of her PhD research, she has pointed out that wellbeing has multiple dimensions and that the dimension of ‘personal wellbeing’ (PWB) is often neglected.

PWB involves things like setting personally meaningful goals and developing a sense of purpose and competence. It’s a concept that’s linked to the idea of eudaimonia, which takes its roots back in the Ancient Greek philosophy of Aristotle. 

At the moment, policies and interventions tend to focus on ‘subjective well-being’ (SWB) – or what the Greeks called ‘hedonia’. This focus is manifested in research that tends to measure how ‘happy’ pupils feel, as well as policy documents and initiatives which concentrate on ‘managing feelings and emotions.’

Although some social and emotional learning programmes which focus on SWB have been shown to be beneficial, an increased focus on personal wellbeing would help shape a more distinctive role for schools. This would build on schools’ role in inspiring pupils with big goals that provide purpose and helping them to pursue those even when the going gets tough.

A different focus could build on schools’ role in inspiring pupils with big goals

This would be better aligned with schools’ more traditional educational function. It could also put an end to unhelpful narratives that treat wellbeing and academic excellence as being in tension. As Aristotle put it, “an excellent life requires exertion”.

Another of schools’ distinctive features is their universalism and their reach into every community. In Balancing act, a report I co-authored for the Institute for Public Policy Research alongside the Centre for Education and Youth, I suggest that the next government should build on this unique characteristic by investing in schools as hubs for services that enrich children’s lives and strengthen families and communities. 

At the moment, schools serving more disadvantaged communities are less likely to provide access to mental health support and life-enhancing opportunities like residentials compared to private schools and schools serving more advantaged communities. Yet the previous Labour government’s extended school programme had numerous benefits that reached far out into the community.

We shouldn’t expect teachers to endlessly stretch their remit, but with adequate funding more schools could employ specialist staff like nurses and mental health practitioners while forming partnerships with third-sector organisations that offer a rich menu of enrichment opportunities. This would have the added benefit of serving a much-needed childcare function – freeing up parents to work, and putting money back in the family pocket.

The dire statistics on youth mental health and wellbeing show that our society is failing to offer the next generation the childhood they deserve. The education system can’t solve this deep and complex problem, but by articulating and investing in a distinctive role for schools a future government could help them play their part.

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