Beyond the rhetoric of greater mental health provision in schools for both pupils and staff, not enough has been done – and is being done – to support trainee teachers, writes Emma Hollis

It appears that everyone now understands that for teachers to best support children in their care, looking out for their own wellbeing is of the utmost importance. Yet much of the support in place is reactive, when in fact it must begin within Initial Teacher Training (ITT).

There is absolutely no doubt that ITT providers work hard to support the needs of all their trainees, including their mental health needs. However, difficulties around non-disclosure, variability in occupational health processes and lack of funding and capacity in schools mean that their efforts often do not receive the support needed from other stakeholders within the sector. Tackling this important issue must be a team effort, and yet so many members of that “team” are hampered by matters outside their control.

I first gave voice to the problem at a NASBTT members’ event 12 months ago (almost to the day). I was hearing first-hand about a new generation of troubled teachers who needed help. I investigated, and discovered that in some local authority areas, up to 78 per cent of child and adolescent mental health service referrals had been turned away during the period in which the previous year’s trainees were pupils. A clear correlation and worrying pattern was emerging.

It should concern us all that we are increasingly seeing trainee teachers presenting with mental health issues. In practice, some of the adolescents who fell through the cracks at school are now coming back as adults into an environment where they were first exposed to these feelings of anxiety, low self-esteem and pressure.

Teacher training is very intense, and we have a worrying number of trainees going into schools and presenting quite severe mental health issues. These are people being asked to look after the mental health of the children in their care, yet the lack of mental health support available to them is alarming.

Mentoring will be crucial in delivering on the ECF’s promise

In the intervening 12 months, there has been some action. Last July, Education Support was prompted to open up their free telephone helpline to “anyone in training”. The driver was their study which revealed that newly qualified teachers (NQTs) and those working in education for less than five years are 29 per cent more likely to experience a mental health problem compared to their colleagues.

Their work on building the resilience of those entering the profession, when so many are considering leaving it altogether, is vital to the education system as a whole and to schools in challenging circumstances particularly. Supporting those efforts is why I have subsequently joined the organisation as a trustee.

We also have an opportunity with the Early Career Framework, which has positively acknowledged the emotional demands of the role and the importance of increased support for teachers within the first two years of their career. Mentors, and a focus on quality mentor training, will be crucial in delivering on that promise.

Every time we expect or allow a teacher to support a student with their mental health without the required knowledge and training to do so, we take a risk with the wellbeing of teacher and student alike. To prevent this, NASBTT are working with the Royal Foundation charity to provide advice and guidance for all trainee teachers on supporting the mental health and wellbeing of children. That work has captured the attention of HRH the Duchess of Cambridge and her charity’s staff.

The stark reality, however, is that we are far from getting this right. Research published by University College London last month found that one in 20 teachers is suffering from long-lasting mental health problems.

It is right that every effort be made to support them to recover their quality of life, but until our support is proactive rather than reactive, we will continue to do the profession an injustice.