Education experts in Portsmouth raise concerns about children's mental health
EDUCATIONALISTS across the city have reacted with concern toÂ a recent report showing that three children in every classroom have been diagnosed with a mental health problem.
The reportÂ was carried out by YoungMinds,Â the UK's leading charity in supporting children and young people with mental health problems.
The report highlighted the significant number of students who are suffering from a range of mental health conditions.
The survey of 6,719Â teachers across the UK showedÂ 94 per centÂ hadÂ seen a rise in pupilsÂ with mental health issues over the last five years and that almostÂ every teacher had comeÂ into contact with a child diagnosed with aÂ mental health condition. The report also indicatedÂ that teachers are now spendingÂ an average of 4.5 hours every week responding to concerns about students' mental health.Â
Ian Potter, executive headteacher of the Gosport and Fareham Multi Academy Trust, believes thisÂ national trend is is reflected regionally.
'˜From my experience I would certainly say the situation locally reflects the national data. It is a complex situation which in many ways feels like the perfect storm,' he said.
Portsmouth cabinet member for education, Suzy Horton, added:Â '˜Teachers are seeing a rise in children's mental health issues acrossÂ all agesÂ and this is a reflection of reports in society at large with increased levels of anxiety, self harm and depression.'
Educationalists believe one of the key contributory factors is the increased pressure being placed on schools
National Education Union vice president and Portsmouth teacher, Amanda Martin, said: '˜We have the most tested children in the western world. Students takingÂ their GCSE's have to sit an average of 27 exams. Then there is the pressure of SATS results and the constant end of unit assessments to judge children's progress. I have seen the pressure SATS can cause in my own school with 10-year-olds being physically sick before exams and reduced to tears during tests,'Â
Soo Barnard, assistant head teacher and designated safeguarding lead at Park Community School, added: '˜Schools are trying so hard to show students'Â progress. We are constantly assessing children at every level to show we are on track.'Â
Mr Potter also feels the problems of some students is a consequenceÂ ofÂ a narrowing curriculum which is not suitable allÂ children.Â
He said: '˜Within the education sector there is a lack of understanding as to what makes a good education. The current situation is an inevitable consequence of a policy directive that everyone should be taking the same exams. There is a lack of differentiation in curriculum provision and how young people are subsequently assessed.'
InÂ contrast with theÂ rise in the increasingly complex needs of pupilsÂ has been the diminishing provision of resources to support them.Â
Ian Gates, headteacher at The Cowplain School, said: 'There is no doubt that austerity has had an impact on the provision of services to support young people experiencing difficulties. With budgetary constraints,Â when some of the people in school who traditionally supported young people leave, for exampleÂ school councillors, schools can't afford to replace them.Â Support services like CAMHS (child and adolescent mental health service) are under huge pressure and waiting lists are very long. Schools are at the sharp end of dealing with this but head teachers have to make difficult decisions and will inevitablyÂ have a number of conflictingÂ prioritiesÂ when working with a diminishing budget.'
ForÂ Emma Thomas, chief executive of YoungMinds, these conflictingÂ prioritiesÂ ultimately result in other issues taking precedence.Â
'˜Many schools and teachers do amazing work in looking after student's mental health,Â butÂ sadlyÂ the current education system doesn't place enough value on this. So when schools have to make difficult decisions about how to spend their limited budgets, it can be hard for them to make wellbeing a priority,' said Mrs Thomas.
The increasing number of children being diagnosed with a mental health condition correlates to an overall upward surgeÂ within society at large.Â
'˜People are now more willing to talk openly about mental health than in the past which will now, quite rightly, lead to being labelled with a diagnosis,' said Mr Potter.
Mrs Barnard added: '˜I would say our awareness of children's problems is much greater than it used to be and so we are now able to recognise children's mental concerns more readily.'
The consensus amongst the education professionals in Portsmouth also attribute the changing parameters by which children and adolescents live their lives as a potential underlying cause.
Mr Gates from The Cowplain School said: '˜There is also pressure through the increasedÂ use andÂ exposure of social media, which young people are most vulnerable to as it is so important to how they interact and socialise.'
The potential significance of social media is highlighted in the report withÂ 46 per centÂ of teachers revealingÂ they had taught a child who hadÂ experiencedÂ cyberbullying. Children will often post comments and information on social mediaÂ which they wouldn't dream of saying direct to that individual. This increased layer of interaction has brought with it a whole new realm of potentially detrimental influence on children's mental state.Â Â
'˜Young people are now having to cope with the demands of a technology dominated society. Many children now live their lives through social media in which peoples lives are often portrayedÂ as perfect. Children are exposed to this which creates an added pressure, despite the fact the reality for most people is a life of moderation,' explained Mr Potter.
One of the greatest concernsÂ for educational professionals is the worrying behaviour exhibited by students as a result of issues regarding their mental health.Â
Within the report,Â 60 per centÂ of teachers reportedÂ they had taught a child who they believed to beÂ self-harming and 44 per cent said they hadÂ encountered a child experiencing suicidal thoughts.
'˜From my experience we are certainly dealing with a lot more children who are really struggling and who self harm. We are certainly seeing an increase inÂ referrals to outside agencies to access support for children with complex needs,' explained Mrs Barnard.
COMMENT BY NEIL FATKIN, EDUCATION REPORTER AT THE NEWS
Towards the end of my teaching career I remember talking to a particularly difficultÂ Year 7 student who had recently arrived at the school. When challenged about why he was failing to follow any of my instructions he promptly replied that he '˜couldn't help it' as he had been diagnosed with ODD (oppositional defiant disorder). Whilst not wanting to demean this condition, or any other mental mental diagnosis, the simple fact is that under previous generations the child in question wouldÂ have been viewed as a '˜naughty boy'.
We now have a far greater understanding of child psychology and have quite rightly identified a vast range of conditions which can causeÂ difficulties for children and adults. Inevitably the greater understanding we have for a broadening range of mental health conditions then the greater a number of children willÂ beÂ diagnosed. As Soo Barnard explained: '˜I believe all of these conditions have always existed but we are now far more aware of what they are.'Â
The situation is undoubtedly being compounded by budget cuts which haveÂ reducedÂ the capacity of schools to deal with mental health at a time when the complex needs of children are increasing. Teachers are increasingly being asked to work as makeshift counsellors and child psychologists whenÂ they are simply not trained to do so.Â
At a time when more teachers than ever before are leaving the profession,Â with workload and increased pressure highlighted as the primary cause, it should certainly be no surprise that the children, on whom school results depend, are alsoÂ being affected.
In my last school, every six weeks students were subjected to a rigorous system in which I would formally assess students and track their progress towards the holy grail of target grades. Students were constantly informed of what their outcomes should be, how they were currently performing and questioned about potential improvement. Whilst thisÂ system ticked the ofsted box of accountability,Â when multiplied across 10 subjects itÂ undoubtedly generatedÂ a burden of pressureÂ on students. Inevitably for some young minds itÂ isÂ an expectation too difficult to cope with.
The pressure on schools to reach targetsÂ can be overwhelming to the point where itÂ can inevitably narrow perspective onÂ other aspects of school life. However the systemÂ should never reach a point in which the desire for results '˜is at all costs'. Whilst schools and teachers are quite rightly accountable if levels become suffocating there will inevitably be a breaking point. If many teachers are reaching thatÂ point then it shouldÂ no surprise many students are too.