Idea Exchange: Our emotional wellbeing hubs will improve pupils’ mental health

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A £1.3m project sees Greenwich fund specialist staff who are embedded in secondary schools, writes Anthony Okereke (Lab), leader of Greenwich RBC.

Emotional wellbeing hubs in schools

Objective: Give children and their families access to wellbeing help when they need it

Timescale: 2024 onwards

Cost to authority: £1.3m a year

Outcomes: Eight secondary schools will have wellbeing staff funded by the council, who will operate a ‘hub and spoke’ model to also work with primary schools

Contact: [email protected]

There is a genuine children’s mental health crisis in the UK. Children as young as 11 are regularly diagnosed with mental health issues and it’s our worry that poor mental health not only affects a young person day to day, but it also has a lingering impact on them for years to come.

Anthony Okereke (Lab), leader of Greenwich RBC

It’s a real domino effect. The pattern we have noticed is that when a young person’s overall wellbeing isn’t good, they are less likely to be in school regularly. But if you are not in school, you are not learning and if you are not learning, your outcomes will not be as good as they should be.

So in Greenwich RBC we’ve tried to develop a local solution to what is a genuine national emergency. We are investing £1.3m every year to embed specialist staff in schools who work directly with young people, and their families at home too – keeping young people healthy and happy, keeping them in the classroom, keeping them heading in the right direction.

This generation have been put on the back foot through no fault of their own. We can blame the pandemic and poverty. With the incessant impact of covid and now the cost of living crisis affecting near enough every household, it’s no surprise so many young people are coming to school anxious, tired, hungry, distracted or worried.

School absences

But what’s worse is that some kids just aren’t coming to school at all.

In 2020-21, only 13% of students were regularly absent from school. Fast forward to 2021-22, that number rockets to 23%.

It’s so much harder for kids to do well if they are not in the classroom, but they can’t be in the classroom if they are not well.

That is what this is about.

I first raised this issue as a backbencher in 2018, and now as council leader it’s something I am following through on. We firmly believe the government should budget for children and young people’s mental health, and we plan to lobby for exactly that.

But we don’t have time to wait for that to happen and by stepping in to provide alternative support, we are hopefully preventing some young people from needing to rely on NHS services that are already buckling.

This is a new level of support. We are the first council to do this on such a wide scale. Our investment means children and families will have access to help when they need it. It’s an ongoing commitment too – it’s our ambition that schools will be able to rely on this for years to come, rather than leaning on short term funding pots.

Listening exercise

Our research shows there’s an uneven playing field for students: some schools have the funds to pay for extra mental health and wellbeing provision, but other schools have had to cut back on support to balance precarious budgets.

It’s a lottery for a young person whether they can access help, and that’s not right.

At one local school, for example, we had more than 30 requests for support from teachers and parents this year alone – but they’re relying on a £17,000 government handout that lasts for just 12 months.

Others don’t even have that.

Last year we carried out an extensive listening exercise. I visited dozens of schools, spoke to teachers, headteachers, students, parents – and the same thing came up repeatedly. There is not enough support for children’s mental health.

Using all that research and feedback, we started work with one secondary school on an attendance and wellbeing project. From here, we will roll the hubs out to seven more secondary schools across the borough, and our new army of wellbeing staff will operate a ‘hub and spoke’ model to work with primary schools too.

Think of it like a bicycle wheel – the hub will be based at a secondary school in the middle, with its spokes branching out into all its surrounding primary schools. This will strengthen the relationship between our local schools, which will benefit families and make it much easier for vulnerable children when it comes to their transition between years six and seven.

Whole family approach

Schools will identify the children they are most concerned about, and the unit will undertake intensive work in the school and in the family home. They’ll work with the child and their family on why things aren’t right. An assessment will be completed with the family having a say in the required support. The child will be at the centre of the conversation, but this project is to help the whole family – sometimes parental mental health can be just as much as a ­factor as the child’s.

Through our innovative framework, staff will work with the young person to identify issues of poor wellbeing, improve attendance and teach sustainable coping mechanisms to set that young person on the right track for good. This ‘whole family’ approach will include goal setting, compassion minded approaches, cognitive behavioural therapy and collaboration with an emphasis on family activities and practical support. We’re teaching coping mechanisms, providing support and helping young people to build good habits.

As with every new local authority project, the biggest obstacle has been money. We are running on a shoestring but demand for our services is greater than it has ever been. We’re paying for this from our own budget, because one of our biggest priorities is making sure every young person has the platform to succeed.

It’s early days, but success will be determined as improved attendance, improved behaviour, reduced anxiety and increased wellbeing. As we roll the programme out we may find that one approach doesn’t fit all and I am sure schools will tweak the hubs as needed – the most important thing for us is we are providing the funds, staff and commitment to help.

Having had such productive conversations with school leaders, we know there is a real appetite for this support, and we are making it happen.

This programme shows the power of listening and learning from schools and young people, and when local authorities work with partners on the ground, we can develop comprehensive and strategic answers to national issues.

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