Review by Carolyn Roberts

5 Feb 2017, 5:00

This much I know about mind over matter: Improving mental health in our schools

Seeking a quiet place to write in a conference centre, I find myself surrounded by scantily clad young adults auditioning for a talent agency.

All talk excitedly about experience and disaster, hopes dashed and opportunity knocking: shoulders back, dance on.

In this most precarious business the language is resilience, determination, clear-sightedness. Just the company in which to consider schools’ new responsibilities for mental health, in a context where national debate about fragile young people and their support services tends to be polarised.

Adolescents: flaky or misunderstood? Headteachers: anxious or what?

Mind over Matter, the second of Tomsett’s This Much I Know series, is designed to help. He intersperses a trot round the landscape with expert and pundit interviews, personal experiences, honest confusion and shared experiments.

Tomsett looks the issue in the eye

Tomsett looks the issue in the eye. He sets out seven factors in the storm around our young: harder exams; the “toxic gift” of teacher anxiety. Parental fears for children’s futures. Funding cuts causing “student support mechanisms on the periphery of the budget” to be sacrificed. Inequality and poverty. The mistaken entitlement to happiness. The unspeakable glare of social media.

He interviews the great, the good and the inevitable. Claire Fox of the Institute of Ideas, more interesting here than elsewhere, describes giving schools this responsibility as stealing money from the needy. No one, she observes, is interested in the chronically mentally ill. The cheap school solution is cynical, focusing on soft problems rather than investing to heal real illness.

Natasha Devon, the former children’s mental health tsar, describes her identification of the problem, then her commissioning and decommissioning by the Department for Education (DfE). Her aim to develop national consistency in supportive responses for young people comes over as honorable, while at odds with the “grit” agenda.

In refreshingly humble tone, the government’s behaviour tsar Tom Bennett, is troubled about teachers’ “diagnostic work”, blurring lines between mental health, pastoral care and character education. Similarly useful – but woefully under-edited – interviews appear with Norman Lamb MP and academics Ken McLaughlin and Tanya Byron. Access to them all under one cover is a real strength of the book.

Personal aspects of the book worried me, however. The exposure of Tomsett’s mother’s struggles was troubling

It is when Tomsett sets out developments in his own school and city that we see hope for the future. If we could all develop a continuum from brave and well-equipped class teacher to CAMHS consultant psychiatrist, then we could talk about accurately assessing and comprehensively meeting children’s needs. This is real and costly inclusion, of course, where schools take risks to plan a consistent service from light touch to intensive care, at a time of wounding cuts.

Personal aspects of the book worried me, however. The exposure of Tomsett’s mother’s struggles was troubling, including her unfathomable visit to his school. I’m annoyed by sporting references and would beg him to leave the golf versus A-levels routine out of a third book. The chapter on headteacher mental health is true, but we experience it idiosyncratically: I’m unconvinced by dismissals of the need to pay the mortgage.   Despite constant reference to his own difficult origins, Tomsett asserts that “middle-class girls suffer most”. I’m pretty sure that’s untrue. They suffer most who suffer most, where his seven stressors are compounded by poverty, addiction, neglect and violence.

It’s a pity the book gives so much space to thinking out loud when its underlying commitment to children’s public service could be developed. It never really offers a working critique of our besetting tension between paranoid accountability-driven education and an underdeveloped national understanding of the value of the child.

Pastoral care is underthought in most schools, disregarded in current thinking and nationally sacrificed in a pyrrhic victory over the blob. We need a theoretical backbone to help us make judgments.

This book doesn’t give it, but it’s a start. Shoulders back, dance on.

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