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Why mental health education needs to be a compulsory subject in UK schools – our reply to the government

Our reply to the government’s response

Why mental health education needs to be a mandatory subject in all British schools.

Educating the next generation about the importance of mental health will have a long-lasting, positive effect on our society. The UK can become a world leader in fighting mental illness, so that it no longer blights the lives of children, adults, and families. We can stop mental health issues putting a strain on our NHS, industry and economy. We will only achieve this, however, if it’s made a compulsory subject in our schools, and not a box ticking exercise.

Maintaining good mental health is an absolute life skill. It should be a core subject on the school curriculum alongside reading and writing. It is just as important a tool in understanding the body as physical education and biology.

We acknowledge the government’s response to our petition – “Make mental health education compulsory in primary and secondary schools”. But they are still falling drastically short of delivering an effective preventative strategy, something that is vital if we are to tackle the mental health epidemic that is facing three children in every UK classroom.

Headucation infographics 3The government has outlined their plans, but these will still fail to provide adequate mental health education to the 850,000 children aged 5-16 who suffer with mental illness. They will not be sufficient for British 10-14 year olds who, over the last two years, have seen a 70% increase in the number of reported cases of self-harm in their age group. They will not help the 43% of school leaders who are finding it harder to access CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) for their pupils.

In their response, the government stated that they want ‘mental health to be an everyday concern in all institutions’ – as part of the Personal, Social, Health and Economic lessons (PSHE). But PSHE isn’t taught every day – if it is even taught at all! PSHE is a non-compulsory subject, and not given the dedication it deserves. The PSHE Association identifying that schools often ‘lack curriculum time to teach PSHE’.

The government also wants schools to ‘be able to decide themselves how to teach their pupils about mental health by developing their own local PSHE programme.’ They also said ‘all schools should teach PSHE’. The onus, of course, being on the word ‘should’. This does not mean that they have to – it is not compulsory,

teachersThe government states they support schools in developing their PSHE curriculum, and that the PSHE Association provides guidance and age-appropriate lesson plans to teach about mental health. However, 75% of school leaders say they lack the resources to meet the mental health needs of pupils and cited lack of training as one of the main contributors. Providing support and ambiguous PSHE guidance to schools is just a box ticking exercise which fails pupils and puts immense pressure on teachers and schools. The government relies upon Ofsted to ensure that schools are teaching PSHE (though of course this doesn’t always happen). However, in 40% of schools that do teach PSHE, Ofsted said that the subject ‘requires improvement’ or is ‘inadequate’. PSHE is also taught to varying degrees and throughout the country and is therefore inconsistent.

In the new common inspection framework, PSHE provision was mentioned in just 14% of Ofsted reports in secondary schools, and in only 8% of primary school reports. PSHE was mentioned in far fewer reports than other subjects such as sport (59%), history (36%), art (31%), music (31%) and geography (26%). If we are placing such importance on the physical education, then it begs the question: why aren’t we doing the same for their mental health education?

Until mental health education is made a mandatory subject and not delivered as a ‘nice to have’ afterthought, the alarming mental illness statistics relating to children and young people will continue to increase.

The Prime Minister announced a new green paper with the agenda of supporting children and young people, and an additional £15m to implement a range of methods, including the offer of mental health first aid training in every secondary school.

We don’t think an improved first aid system in schools will have any major impact on addressing mental health issues for the country in the long term. You can invest as much money as you want into additional teacher training and first aid for mental health, but the fact is that children are very good at hiding mental health issues, and therefore suffer in silence. Very often young sufferers are confused and unaware of what’s actually wrong, and so they don’t, and won’t, open up. When they do, it’s usually because they’re beyond breaking point.

The government’s desire to ‘tackle the burning injustice of mental health problems’ so that ‘future generations can develop into resilient, confident adults, equipped to go as far as their talents will take them’ won’t become a reality until mental health education is made a mandatory subject.

Evolution of a child FINALWe are doing our children an injustice if we don’t teach them about something that will potentially affect them. We need to begin the process of normalising mental health issues so children feel confident enough to open up to each other and to those who care for them. Compulsory mental health education will foster a more aware and proactive society, equipped for dealing with mental illness. Over half those who experience mental illness in childhood suffer it again as adults. Children who can open up in childhood will feel confident enough to open up in adulthood, as they move into the workplace and go on to have their own families.

Compulsory mental health education will help a stretched curriculum become more efficient. It will also reduce the pressure on teachers, mental health social workers, the NHS and CAMHS. It will avert a mental health crisis and help the UK economy to prosper. Without good mental health, we have nothing.

This is one of the most important issues of our time, so let’s lead the world in ensuring the next generation understands the importance of mental health. Mental health education lasts a lifetime, and it starts in our schools.

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