15 Ways to Reimagine Education

6. Prioritise Mental Health and Wellbeing.

Schools in the UK (and across the globe) are facing a mental health crisis. Statistics show that mental health problems are on the rise among school aged children and young people.

Such problems can include emotional disorders like depression and anxiety, and behavioural or hyperactive disorders that impact upon children’s wellbeing.

  • In England 1 in 8 children, aged 5-19 years is living with a mental health problem (1 in 10 of these children is aged 5-10 years), according to a 2018 NHS study.
  • A YouGov poll conducted on behalf of UK children’s charity Barnardo’s (2018) revealed that half of all school children feel sad or anxious every week. By the age of 16, stress at school is a worry for 83% of children in England.
  • A NSPCC study (2018) found that the number of British children needing NHS counselling had risen by a third.
  • 90% of school leaders have seen an increase in the number of students experiencing anxiety or stress over the past five years (Young Minds, 2017).

Why are Mental Health Problems Increasing?

This website explores some of the causes of this worrying trend, from the pressure of standardised testing, the young age that children start school, ability grouping, inadequate teacher training, large class sizes, lack of a focus on play and self-direction, to the length of time children spend at school, lack of democracy and mutual respect between staff and pupils (including negative behaviour policies) and limited parental involvement in the school community.

As such, a growing movement of people are concerned that practices in conventional schools are at odds with children’s human rights. They argue that the Department of Education should be held to account and that the Government is in breach of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).

Why is Mental Health at School so Important?

Findings from neuroscience show how our capacity to learn is greatly impaired when we are under stress. Anxiety has a negative impact on memory and our ability to process information. In contrast, when mental health and wellbeing are promoted, our learning potential improves. 

Research by leading American psychologist, Martin Seligman has shown that teaching emotional wellbeing skills to children at school results in increased levels of engagement, better academic performance and much lower rates of depression and anxiety in future life. He says:

“Teaching wellbeing isn’t about getting students to smile all the time, it’s about coaching them to find greater meaning in life – and it can markedly improve test scores, too.”

Martin Seligman

A similar study in the UK found that teaching wellbeing in schools increased pupils’ health, life satisfaction and behaviour by up to 10%. The London School of Economics (LSE) and the charity Bounce Forward collaborated to pilot a curriculum called Healthy Minds, which was rolled out across 32 secondary schools over a five-year period.

It included elements on building resilience, navigating social media, looking after mental health, developing healthy relationships and understanding the responsibilities of being a parent. The trial was so successful that they are hoping the Healthy Minds curriculum will become statutory in the UK.

LSE Associate Professor, Dr Grace Lordan explains in this short film how teaching wellbeing and soft skills (people skills and emotional intelligence) is essential for preparing our children for adult life and the workplace:

Dr Grace Lordan on wellbeing in school

“One of my research areas involves thinking about the type of skills that kids today will need to future proof their work prospects. Healthy Minds offers skills that cannot be replaced by robots, and at the same time helps children in the UK have happier and healthier adult lives.”

Dr Grace Lordan, LSE

You can visit our Articles and Research section to read the full report, entitled, “Widening the High School Curriculum to Include Soft Skill Training: Impacts on Health, Behaviour, Emotional Wellbeing and Occupational Aspirations”.

You can also watch this short animation from Teachappy on why it’s time schools prioritised the happiness and wellbeing of children, teachers and everyone in the school community. They say:

“Happier teachers teach better and happier pupils learn better. It’s simple, really.”

What Can be Done to Improve Mental Health in Schools?

Forward-thinking parents and professionals believe that holistic health is just as important as academic achievement.

Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield says that mental health issues should be tackled within schools to stop problems escalating further, and all schools should have an NHS counsellor.

You can listen to her discussing the current children’s mental health epidemic on Radio Four’s You and Yours programme (November 2018):


Mental health and wellbeing must be prioritised for all students (not just those who outwardly show that they are struggling). It must be at the heart of every school’s ethos and be treated as a prevention for mental health problems, and not as an after-thought when it’s already too late.

But Shouldn’t We Treat the Cause Not the Symptoms?

Dr Naomi Fisher, clinical psychologist, mother of two self-directed learners and author of Changing Our Minds: How Children Can Take Control of their Own Learning has written a powerful article about the side effects of school which is based on her experiences of routinely treating children and young people in distress:

“They come for many reasons… For some of them, school itself is causing the distress. Then I’m asked to fix the children. Do some therapy, or maybe some mindfulness, and help them keep going. Build their resilience…

I’ll never be able to meet the need, because what I am offering – therapy – is a way to patch up each individual. It can’t look at the system which is creating this distress.

Improving mental health is about so much more than treating problems when they arise. That’s like treating lung cancer without encouraging people to quit smoking.”

Dr Naomi Fisher

Support for Schools

Have a look at our School Support page for ideas on promoting students’ mental health and wellbeing at school.

Further Reading on Why Progressive Alternatives are Needed

Please visit 15 Ways to Reimagine Education