Mental Health and Wellbeing in Schools

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 4th December 2018.

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Photo of Layla Moran Layla Moran Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education) 2:30 pm, 4th December 2018

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He makes an important point, and I will get to what the Government are suggesting in a moment. I also add a note of caution: I do not think that we should over-medicalise being an adolescent. There is a grave difference between that and ensuring that there are proper services for those on the acute end of the spectrum.

Coming back to funding cuts, one of the best bits of being a teacher in my day was having time to get know the students, and develop a level of trust with them, very often after a class was finished, or during an after-school club. Those are the kinds of things that are going. There is pressure on teachers, with cuts to the number of teaching assistants and a narrowing of the curriculum. Teachers have to teach more lessons and do more prep, meaning that they have less and less time for that critical pastoral support. What are the Government doing to measure how pastoral support in schools—the time that teachers have to spend with students—is changing?

It would be remiss in a debate such as today’s not to talk about teachers. Mental health in schools is not confined to the children; there is a crisis among teachers as well. A report by the charity Education Support Partnership, including a survey of 1,250 education professionals, showed that a huge majority—75%—of the UK’s education professionals had suffered from either mental or physical health issues in the last two years due to work. Some 50% of those who took part in the study said that they had experienced depression, anxiety or panic attacks due to work, and the charity has warned that unless urgent action is taken over rising mental health problems, there will be a severe retention and recruitment crisis. We already know that that is one of the issues that our schools are facing, and it exacerbates all the issues that I was describing regarding pastoral care.

The impact of Ofsted on the mental health of teaching professionals also needs addressing. The way in which Ofsted operates under its current inspection framework drives the wrong kinds of behaviour in schools. I believe, and the Liberal Democrats have now made this party policy, that the brand of Ofsted is so broken in the teaching profession that it needs scrapping and replacing with another inspectorate that does that job. Critically, the job of school improvement must be separated.

I sit on the Public Accounts Committee, and in a recent hearing we heard how school improvement is being lost amid academies’ governance structures and the lack of services provided at local authority level. Representatives from the Department for Education could not definitely say that it was their job, and neither could those from Ofsted. The Liberal Democrats believe that it is time to have an arm’s-length body that focuses on school improvement for all schools, no matter their governance structure, and a separate inspectorate that does that specific job.

Further to that, we need to change the framework for school inspections. It should not just be about numbers. I am the school governor at a primary school. I sit on the performance and standards committee of that school, and it is all about numbers. We are reducing children to single numbers; we look at their progress but do not allow teachers the time to look at broader issues. We believe that we should have an inspectorate that looks closely at wellbeing in schools and measures that part of what a school delivers as critically as attainment and progress. Having said that, I welcome much of what Amanda Spielman is doing in terms of drawing together the issues in education, particularly where she has spoken about the narrowing of the curriculum and off-rolling. That role is vital, so I do not want that to be lost in today’s debate.

Another thing that I want to bring up is league tables. Early in my career, during my first couple of years of teaching, in the early 2000s, I was a fresh-faced, brand-new physics teacher and I absolutely adored my job. I went into a school where I lost my faith in the profession very early on. We were teaching GCSEs and all the science students had been put up on a wall and colour coded. This was when we had A to F grade. The reds were the ones who were never going to get to the C boundary, and the greens were the ones who looked as if they were going to pass. We were told in no uncertain terms that we had to focus on the middle group, who were coloured yellow. That did not make any sense to me. I thought that I should be able to focus on those who needed it the most. When I asked why, I was told, “League tables.”

What can the Government do about league tables? I am not saying that we should get rid of any of the data; we should publish it. However, on the DFE website one of the first things that people can do is click on performance tables data. They are then encouraged to compare schools in their local area. Comparing schools is not a bad thing; parents need to have the right information. However, it should not just be about numbers; there needs to be a full sense of what the school offers, including its extra-curricular stuff and its ability to deal with wellbeing and mental health issues. That is not what people get; they either get performance tables data, or a link to the school’s Ofsted report, which, as I just mentioned, is inadequate in that form. The Liberal Democrats have therefore said that we would stop the Government doing that, even if we cannot stop the press doing it. In Ofsted’s annual report, which was published today, Amanda Spielman noted that, shamefully, thousands of children are being let down by off-rolling. The off-rolling epidemic in schools is a direct result of schools’ desire to push up numbers. It is about numbers, not about the children, and that cannot be right.

The Government are fostering a culture of senseless competition among schools, in which results from a single set of narrowly focused high-stakes exams are the be-all and end-all. That is not good enough. Amanda Spielman wrote to the Public Accounts Committee in October about the narrowing of the curriculum:

“Where we do have clearer evidence of a decline in the quality of education are in the narrowing of the curriculum in schools and an endemic pattern of prioritising data and performance results, ahead of the real substance of education…schools must work to make sure that pupils leave school with the qualifications and examination results that set them up for future success…However, our research has found evidence that an overly data-driven accountability system is narrowing what pupils are able to study and learn.”

My worry is that rather than encouraging children to flourish at every turn in their lives—which can often be one step forward and two steps back; that is how life works—we have a curriculum that encourages multiple levels of failure. It starts with baseline testing as soon as children get into schools, moves on to SATs and continues with exam after exam. Every young person whom I have asked about high-stakes testing tells me that it has got worse and worse.

I was an experienced teacher before I came into Parliament, but I am still one of the youngest MPs. We have to remember that the school system that we MPs went through is not the same as the system that students are going through now. There is much more high-stakes testing in the curriculum now, and we have to stop it, so the Liberal Democrats have committed to getting rid of SATs. We are not saying that data is not important, but we can collect it in other ways. For the record, as a physics teacher I loved exams—they were great—but they do not have to be so high-stakes. They can be part of learning well; they do not have to be the be-all and end-all. I am seriously concerned.