I was a new Parent Governor at a large secondary school when I first asked the question of the school’s senior management team. My son was near to finishing Year 7, and I had concerns. At the time, I was an Assistant Director in a neighbouring Local Authority, with a background in children’s social care and mental health. Having failed to get his first or second choice, my son had joined a school on the edge of special measures with a fearsome reputation.
As you might expect of a school with 1,600 students, unless a child has excelled or is infamous in some way, it’s easy to be ‘unknown’. They may be a familiar face, a name, but who really knows what they’re like, what helps or hinders them, or what they expect and how they react to certain situations? Even in early years and primary, children can be quietly masking what’s happening inside. So, when I stopped the SMT meeting to politely ask: ‘Who here knows my child?’ I realised no-one did. Not remotely.
So, my next question was, ‘Who will notice if my son changes, for example, if he becomes depressed or anxious?’ In any busy system, it’s often only when a behaviour sticks out in some way that a problem is picked up on. As far as I knew, my son was fine, but some of his friends were struggling. When he described school, it sounded like they were all lost in a crowd: no-one seemed to have the opportunity to develop a strong, anchoring relationship with any of the adults.
In my professional life, I had become increasingly interested in how we identify problems earlier and prevent children entering the mental health system. Without being noticed, without resilience factors in place, problems can escalate to the point where daily functioning is impaired and only then is the system triggered to offer help. Unfortunately, as many of you may know, the mental health system, much like a child with escalated problems, is also overwhelmed and struggling to function.
From collaborating with the University of Brighton, I’d learnt that there are many things we can do to build resilience ‘whilst we’re there’, and which require no special tools or training, just an understanding of the types of adult behaviour and action that helps. I wanted to know how this could be promoted throughout my son’s school and how, in a large system, students could be known over time? For example, how data could be used to collate risk factors and identify emerging concerns earlier. And perhaps most importantly, how staff could be supported to build and sustain a positive relationship with students, particularly those who may not have an Emotionally Available Adult in their life.
Fortunately, on that day of the SMT meeting, there was a very committed and enthusiastic Deputy in the room whose interest was piqued. With help from others, we set about using systems-thinking to develop a whole school approach to wellbeing and resilience. If we’d had Motional back then, we could have saved a lot of time spent on developing Excel spreadsheets, adapting SIMS, and devising evidence-based activities for staff to use!
I’m proud of how Hove Park School became nationally recognised as a best-practice school for its emotional and mental health approaches. That Deputy, Jim Roberts, became the Head in 2017 and here’s what Ofsted said about his ‘Good’ school (2021): There is a strong community ethos underpinned by positive relationships. Pupils of all abilities and backgrounds are valued. They appreciate the support for their welfare and well-being, including their mental health.
Lisa Williams, Associate/Independent Consultant.
Lisa Williams is an Independent Consultant with a history of working in the public policy industry. She has held senior roles across health, social care, education, and the charity sector, including as Local Authority Assistant Director, Joint Children's Commissioner, Regional Public Health Manager, and Deputy Head of the Department of Health.