Below is a useful PSHE update from Ian MacDonald – the latest addition to the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust school training team.
I’ve rambled on in the past about the pupil-teacher relationship in a PSHE classroom in terms of how that can be used to achieve improved outcomes for pupils. I have generally viewed those outcomes as increased knowledge, self awareness and life skills to name a few. A big assumption I have always made has been that this will naturally lead on to early identification of pupils with any issues around emotional wellbeing, sexual health or substance use. Delivering some recent sessions on self harm to a year 8 cohort has made me reconsider this a bit – so I need to thank them too!
The sessions in question were delivered in a school which had a good history of PSHE delivery via dedicated curriculum time, a well supported subject lead and a good whole school approach to wellbeing. What surprised me was the number of students who said they were unlikely to disclose any issues around self harm amongst themselves or their friends to school staff. In fact, school staff were way down the list and seen as someone who was likely to over react rather than help. I had previously done some focus groups with KS4 pupils in the same school who had the opposite view to this, so I was naturally taken aback. I have to say the teacher who was present did an excellent job of clarifying the process of what happens after any sort of disclosure, so many pupils left the session with an instantly improved view of their teachers! However, this did leave me with some questions. Firstly, why were younger pupils so against disclosing personal issues to teachers in their school, especially when older pupils were more willing? Secondly, what impact is this likely to have on early identification of younger pupils needing support? And finally, how can we start to redress this?
My gut reaction to the first question on why pupils were less likely to disclose to teachers in lower KS3, is that perhaps pupils are yet to build that strong trusting relationship with some teachers in a secondary environment. This is particularly relevant where pupils have gone through KS1 and 2 being taught primarily by single teachers in each year group and thus built levels of trust through familiarity with those staff. Could the loss of that intense familiarity (albeit retained in part through form tutors) perhaps underpin the experiences I described earlier – do pupils therefore really take longer to build up that trust once they move into KS3?
So when considering the impact of this changed dynamic, I do wonder whether some pupils who are in need of early intervention in Y7 and 8 are not disclosing the need for support in the absence of this trust. Therefore these pupils may not only be disclosing issues later, but also at a time when certain unwanted behaviours and coping strategies are more entrenched and beyond the scope of early intervention services.
So finally, this begs the question of how to turn this around? My suggestion is that PSHE is a subject which can foster and accelerate this gaining of trust. We know that pupils want their PSHE to be delivered by knowledgeable and well trained staff – so once trust is built through knowledge and delivery, it can also be used to foster early disclosures and early identification in younger pupils. This has to go hand in hand with increased clarity too pupils on what happens when disclosures are made, and debunking the myths that children could be taken away from families – yes this happens, but often in extreme circumstances only. Again, PSHE is the obvious place for these discussions to take place, perhaps using case studies to help with clarity. For this to happen, we need supportive SLT in schools to allow teachers to receive the training and support they need to foster this improved relationship in KS3. We also need local public health teams to be relaying the message to schools in more accessible ways with relevant examples of how schools can support early intervention around child mental health. New, accessible resources offered on inourhands.com and via the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust will hopefully help too – they all look pretty exciting!
I know a lot of great work is already happening in lots of schools up and down the country which is brilliant, but ed would love to see it become more common, and even in those stronger schools there needs to be continued clarity around those disclosure processes. Ultimately, we want earlier disclosures so issues are less likely to impact on a pupil’s health and educational outcomes, put less stress on CAMHS services, and enable the right support to be put in place at the right time. Yes, other factors play a role in a child’s mental health, but increasing our understanding of what prevents pupils opening up in school will surely play its part in redressing the balance.