Royal Grammar School


Out of Character?

Out of Character?

Picture this. You’re getting geared up to present a conference at your school and then ITV’s Good Morning, Britain demands a live interview at school… at 6.40am! Well, we coped.

The Sunday Times had picked up on our conference at the RGS on Wednesday, promoting emotional health and resilience in schools. As often happens, they chose a particular, narrow angle, in this case the matter of younger boys’ eating disorders. That wasn’t specifically a focus of our planned event: still, if we can’t always choose the line the media take, we can be pleased when they take an interest in an important issue. And it is important to us at the RGS.

Let’s look at the serious side of this. One in ten children will suffer from a mental health disorder at some stage of their school career. That’s two or three in every class a teacher encounters. We can’t always prevent such occurrences: but by recognising the individual and helping them consciously to develop character (sometimes termed resilience or grit) we can give them, and us, the environment, tools and strategies to cope with the bad times and, in general, get through them.

The statistics on teenage mental illness aren’t new: as many as one in twelve children and young people self-harm; one in four adults will experience poor mental health; a victim of bullying is four times more likely to suffer depression at a later date.

The pastoral debate in the staff room is often about the steep rise in issues such as self-harm, eating disorders, anxiety and depression in our schools.  The importance of teaching good health and resilience isn’t lost on us either.  It is hardly ground-breaking to suggest that placing the emotional wellbeing of children at the heart of a school delivers the broad range of educational results which we all aim for: that what we keep telling RGS parents. 

The problem teachers face as a profession is (rightly or wrongly) that we too easily feel poorly placed to deal with the reality of growing mental health problems, both in terms of our response to individuals and in terms of our strategic planning. Yet the impact that good mental health has on both students and staff, on lesson preparation, delivery and, yes, on academic performance, has made it a focus for us at the RGS this year, as it has for many other schools too.

We are very proud of the quality of our pastoral care at the RGS. Yet we can never be satisfied: and we instinctively know we need to get this difficult area right. What schools need right now are the tools to effect real change - not just in systems, but in attitudes among students, parents and staff alike.

Our Pastoral Director, Sue Baillie, and I were galvanised – along with the entire school staff – by an address on a staff training day in January by Dick Moore of the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust. As a staff we were all agreed. We wanted to do more to be proactive with students and parents alike about adolescent emotional wellbeing (and, arguably, the flipside, ensuring that we are approachable, confident and effective in dealing with the onset, even the very early signs, of mental illness).

We decided to host a major conference in the North (we welcomed delegates from Edinburgh to the Isle of Wight), calling it Out of Character?

On Wednesday we brought together professionals to explore practical strategies for improving emotional wellbeing and resilience in schools.  The emphasis of the day was very much on how to respond to issues, to explore what good support structures look like across the whole school and, at a very individual level, how we support our students and staff too. 

We were fortunate in attracting speakers of the calibre of Dick Moore: generous with his time, Dick also gave a powerful talk to all our Year 9 students on Tuesday afternoon and ran a challenging, well-attended and greatly appreciated parents’ session on Tuesday (as it happens, he’s speaking to the country’s leading independent school heads next week, addressing HMC’s Annual Meeting in Wales).

In the conference’s keynote speech, as at that parents’ event, Dick outlined, as he does so well, the nature and the scale of the issues around wellbeing and mental illness in the young:  next psychologist Dr Nihara Krause outlined the importance of teaching and developing resilience in the young; Dr Pooky Knightsmith described what schools and teachers can do when CAMHS cannot help (especially when the problems are still small and do not put the child over its high threshold for intervention).

Workshops offered perspectives on staff wellbeing (the RGS’s own counsellor, Dave Merritt): self-harm (Sally Ingram); great counselling (Karen Cromarty); eating disorders (Pooky Knightsmith again); character education (Anthony Kerr-Dineen; and promoting wellbeing holistically (Drs Ursula Crawthorne and Chris Bonnett).  

So rewarding was the event that delegates pledged to keep in touch – and agreed that we should make it an annual event in Newcastle.

That’s so right, and we’re happy henceforth to host it annually.

None of this is easy. Building resilience in the young is about, as Dick Moore puts it, helping them to bend, not snap, when the storms of life hit them; to bounce, not break, when they fall.  We can’t solve all this at once, but thinking and talking about it will move us forward: above all, we are in no doubt that a reflective school is a more effective school, in the realm of mental health as in every other aspect of education.

As long as we keep talking, learning and sharing best practice, so that we are all better prepared to promote emotional wellbeing and deal with mental difficulties when they occur, the outlook for young people looks ever better – at the RGS as elsewhere.  

Bernard Trafford