Good vibrations

  • 10th July 2023

esearch shows that mental health issues for pupils and staff have increased as a result of the pandemic. What is the role of governors in supporting school wellbeing? Durell Barnes reports

We re all aware of the increasing emphasis in schools on wellbeing provision for staff and pupils. But governors should also focus on wellbeing because it is the right thing to do, not because it is required.

In May 2021 Barnardo’s polling showed “the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people in Britain could still be worsening a year on after the pandemic first struck” and this has been amply borne out since.

In November last year, the ‘Covid social mobility and opportunities’ study led by University College London and the Sutton Trust reported that almost half of their 13,000 respondents had self-harmed in the past year and it recommended that mental health and wellbeing support should be added to pandemic catch-up activities in schools. In the same month, Schools Week published the findings of its research into the effect of what it called the “Covid toll: what we’ve learnt about teacher anxiety” which stressed in particular the impact on the pipeline into school leadership. In his detailed analysis of the educational legacy of Covid-19, ‘Lessons from lockdown’, Tony Breslin recommended that “there needs to be a much stronger focus on matters of staff wellbeing, including the wellbeing of heads and senior leaders, if schools are to retain the capacity to enable the young people in their care to thrive”.

In the best schools, we are seeing admirable responses to these findings. Schools have moved on from solely reactive provision to recognising and supporting students struggling with wellbeing issues to embrace proactive schemes to promote the flourishing of individuals not just in school but for life. There is greater recognition of the importance of work/life balance for staff, and what constitutes a supportive workplace in terms of monitoring workload and associated stress or anxiety. As the National Governance Association (NGA), commenting on the research undertaken by FFT Education Datalab, pointed out “supportive school leadership and reasonable workloads are both associated with reduced teacher stress”. Interestingly, it added, “that there was no discernible relationship between either collegiality of staff or having a helpful behaviour policy with levels of teacher stress”.

Governors’ interest in wellbeing issues naturally increased during the pandemic and we began to see reporting in this area. If boards are to offer appropriate support and challenge in their monitoring and oversight of this, they need to be well informed. Among the plethora of sources available, useful information can be found in the pamphlet ‘Supporting Mental Health and Wellbeing in Schools’ on the website of the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families and another organisation used by increasing numbers of schools is The Wellbeing Hub. A further trusty source of information and support is the NGA.

Boards need to decide how they are going to receive information about this area, what data they require, and how they are going to interrogate it. Some boards have a designated subcommittee or a working group, sometimes associated with the monitoring of the leadership’s response to the new inspection framework. This enables focus on both staff and student welfare in the same forum but can lead to the creation of another silo. Where there is a welfare or pastoral committee, student wellbeing can sit there, although there is an argument that separating pastoral and academic is inappropriate in the current context – this issue probably merits an article of its own. Elsewhere, it is regarded as central to all school functions and is discussed at the education committee.

However this reporting question is resolved, I strongly recommend that boards appoint a link governor to take a particular interest in this area. Expertise for such a role is of course desirable but it is not essential; the key is that pupils,parents and staff can see the priority being placed on the issue by this appointment, and have confidence that a board member will be available to support and challenge school leadership. This is not a role which can simply be added to the functions of the overstretched link safeguarding governor and should probably be separate from the role of any governor who is nominated by (or even a member of ) the staff.

School leaders will want to inform the board about the provision for pupils through personal, social, health and economic education, tutorial programmes, assemblies etc, and for staff through induction programmes, coaching and mentoring, performance review or appraisal and the work of the HR department. But, as with so many areas, it’s important to be clear from the outset what information is required and in what form. Governors do not want to receive reams of PSHE schemes of work, for example, but will appreciate a policy setting out what the school seeks to achieve in terms of wellbeing, how it measures that, and what success criteria look like. Data relating to feedback from surveys as appropriate of pupils, staff and parents is useful but only if it shows patterns and the executive can demonstrate what it has done in the light of this feedback. Systems for helping schools achieve this are likely to be developed in the coming months. Benchmarking and reviewing, not just provision, but also culture, can assist with resetting and monitoring priorities in this area and can be achieved internally or with external consultant assistance.

In monitoring and overseeing this area, as with others, boards will want to receive data which has been analysed so that they can question the findings rather than the numbers. They will want to be assured that measures are in place not just to respond to wellbeing issues when problems occur but that at all levels of the school provision is such that wellbeing is actively promoted. In this area, as with safeguarding, boards will benefit from anecdotal information which encapsulates the kind of things which can go wrong and how people can be assisted, as well as the ways in which ‘promotion’ is ‘active’.

We know that some roles are particularly stressful, for example heads of boarding houses and, in particular, designated safeguarding leads (DSLs), as demonstrated by the research undertaken last year by Schools Week carried out with Supporting Education. I strongly recommend that DSLs have proper supervision (this is quite separate from line management and provides support and opportunities for reflection on a confidential basis).

Chairs of governors in particular will be mindful of the importance of monitoring the wellbeing of the head and of his or her oversight of the wellbeing of the leadership team. We must not forget that senior leaders and other professionals are primarily responsible for their own wellbeing, but as the demands of senior leadership increase it’s important to ensure that insofar as possible the wellbeing of executives is not impeded by constraints which governors could alleviate. This is why many heads now benefit from coaching and mentoring in addition to their relationship with the chair. Any appraisal of the head or the chair should include feedback on this area.

The addition of another strand of oversight may not be welcome as governors contemplate the vast array of upcoming challenges. But the monitoring of wellbeing will not only ensure real insight into the life of the school, but also provide assurances that focus is rightly on looking after young people and preparing them for the future and that school leaders are ready to face that array of challenges.

Durell Barnes is head of governance and compliance for RSAcademics.

Durell Barnes

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