How Stoke Damerel Community College is putting student well-being at the heart of school life

‘Find your brave’ is this year’s theme for Children’s Mental Health Week. For children to take a risk and ‘be brave’ they need to have some hope that there is support out there for them. When we talk about children of parents with a mental illness, being brave means speaking to someone about their situation and being brave about looking for help.

Bravery means taking a risk in the face of danger. For our children and young people being brave is learning to trust adults and to open up about their home situation in the hope that they will be met with compassion and support. The risk is that there will be an awkward silence or maybe pity. What helps is an environment in which mental illness can be spoken about and be understood. The dangers are obvious – bullying, judgement, silence and possible interventions that might break up the family.

Here is an example of what works. Stoke Damerel Community College in Plymouth has put the children’s welfare at the heart of everything they do. The whole school is trained and supported to help children cope with the different burdens they carry due to poverty, deprivation, mental illness, physical illness and so on. 

Stoke Damerel Community College in Plymouth has been working with Our Time for a number of years and in this piece, Anita Frier, Executive Head, will share details of the school’s innovative approach to mental health awareness, which includes an ongoing longitudinal study to identify and respond to issues facing students during their time at the college and after they leave. The survey began with the class of 2013. The college says that as a result, they have gained a clearer view of where and when certain anxieties and issues might arise. Director of Student Welfare at the college, Rachel Miller, said: “This insight is invaluable in helping us to equip students while they are at the college, and for the years after they leave us to start work or higher education.”

She added: “From our survey, we have been able to identify what some of the major problems are – these include parental mental illness, caring responsibilities and addictions. By identifying potential issues, we can ensure early intervention, which is the key. It has also enabled us to bring in new initiatives to make our students better prepared when they leave, so we are providing them with the tools for them to move on and progress. This is a sustainable, long-term approach.”

The findings of this long-term audit are helping staff to quickly spot potential mental health concerns among students and ensure early intervention with appropriate support. The work is seen as particularly important within the context of the wider community. Out of the 43 neighbourhoods in Plymouth ranked in the indices of multiple deprivations, Stoke Damerel Community College serves the top 4 out of 5 neighbourhoods. Inequalities of health are a big concern. The Director of Public Health’s annual report for Plymouth in 2016 showed that Stonehouse, Devonport and Stoke had significantly higher rates of poor mental health, self-harm and suicide. Some 11,000 residents are affected by mental health issues (40% of these are young people), 47% of which are from the area the school serves.

Mrs Miller said: “Our audit of wellbeing covers the full school career from Year 7 to Year 13, meaning we are able to track wellbeing. Where we can, we also follow students after they leave, through community response. We have become aware that a number of lives were lost among our former male students within a few years of transitioning from school. We also know that other former students had either left higher education or their work because of emotional and mental health issues. So, we needed to look at how we could help and build resilience.”

And Mrs Miller added: “We have developed a caring approach around mental ill health, which says that it’s good to discuss how we feel. Our student peer listeners are right at the heart of this and play a hugely important role in supporting younger students. 

“Because supporting mental illness is such a priority here, the college has ring-fenced the welfare team budget. Students need to feel safe and secure – every child really does matter.”

Through Our Time’s Schools courses, we have become a Mental Health Aware school and the work has become embedded in our culture and is something we – staff and students – are very proud of.

The college’s mental health work is featured with a full chapter in a book to be published soon, Mental Illness in a Parent and Building Children’s Resilience. The chapter, written by Anita Frier, outlines the school’s trauma-informed practice; its close work with agencies such as health providers, police and the NSPCC and Barnardo’s. It describes the way in which the college has created a culture and a ‘whole curriculum’ approach through special assemblies and tutorials, mentors for individual support, curriculum enrichment and dementia awareness.

Lara Sinclair, Vocational Qualifications Manager at the college, said: “This is such an important time in the students’ lives, and it can also be a time of challenges – transition to higher education or to work is a big challenge. Importantly, I think students feel comforted that support is there for them.”

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