Mike Arminger, a teacher and mental health advisor to education, speaks to Mark Brown about his desires for planned compulsory mental health lessons to become genuinely aspirational.

The idea of teaching mental health in schools is an overwhelmingly popular one. While the current government mandating of mental health lessons in England for both primary and secondary school pupils is a widely supported change of policy, questions still remain as to how such mandating will bring about the change people wish to see. In the discussion about the teaching of mental health in schools one of the least heard voices is often the voice of teachers themselves. Characterised as a wilful, threatening, frustrating ‘blob’ by former education secretary Michael Gove, the teaching profession and the leadership of schools are vital to the success of teaching of mental health in schools because, when all of the campaigning and lobbying is over, they’ll be the people doing it.

"You will have young people there that will go 'yeah, that's me, I probably need to talk to somebody'. If you haven't gone about making sure you have available provision post-awareness, then you're possibly going to be in an even worse situation."

“I don’t really meet many educators who don't want to make the next generation more informed and more inspired and educated,” says Mike Arminger, a teacher and mental health advisor to education, who advises schools on mental health training. Working with schools and academies Arminger is a committed advocate of making mental health part of the everyday fabric of schools, placing him in the classic ‘Coalface versus The Government’ position of saying ‘hang on, it might be a bit more complicated than you think.’ The picture he painted for me is of a complicated set of constraints and funding pressures that restrict the choices schools can make.

“The words that comes out of a ministers and governments mouths come all the way down to the coal face,” says Arminger. “One of the main concerns that educators normally raise with me is 'we haven't got adequate training to make sure that we are covering the area of mental health in the right areas. What happens if we go off script?’ Which of course these lessons do and should naturally do through curiosity of the kids.” For teachers, the objective is to take whatever is written in a lesson plan and “lift it off the page which means that has to become our vocabulary, that has to become our language which takes quite a long time if you're not familiar with that subject. It it has to come out of our mouths so our young people can access it and understand it.”

In January this year The Teacher Development Trust announced that staff development budgets in English secondary schools had reduced by 12 percent and that primary schools had seen a reduction of seven percent, the first such reduction since the TDT began analysing these budgets in 2011. Within this there are large variations in schools spending on Continuing Professional Development (CPD) for staff across the country, with secondary schools in Bury allocating £163.50 per teacher, on average, and secondary schools in Barking & Dagenham allocating an average of £1045 per teacher. Money matters.

One of the oddities of the current situation regarding mental health education as part of Relationships (and sex) education and health education becoming mandatory from September 2020, is that while these topics will be required, the subject in which they most naturally fit, Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education, is itself a non-statutory curriculum subject. As national body The PSHE Association states: “There is an expectation on all schools to provide PSHE education. Unlike other subjects, PSHE education is not however, statutory on the curriculum.” Mental health will be competing with a lot of other important areas which relationship, sex and health education must cover, within the context of a subject that is itself fighting for space and funding within schools.

[Editor's note: The Department for Education have told Mental Health Today that it will be compulsory for all schools to teach the mental health content being added to the national curriculum.]

And schools themselves, in our era of league tables, are themselves competing to meet their targets. As Arminger says: “The curriculum has been narrowed so much in England. In many primary schools the majority of the focus is on making sure that schools reach their floor targets for literacy, numeracy. You have some primary schools which are teaching the core subjects all morning and all afternoon. Topics like PE, the Arts, PSHE are all pushed further down the food chain. If you're not going to get the funding and if you're not going to get the validation for running those courses that you would if you put on extra core subjects then what are you going to go with to make sure you get money? Many schools will timetable PHSE lessons by once a week or even once a fortnight, in secondary especially. While the course is not mandatory you have teachers and educators who will be teaching these sessions who have maybe very limited training.”

The requirement to provide mental health education in schools without funding, development and resources to accompany leaves Arminger concerned that it will become a tick box exercise which meets the letter of the mandate but betrays the intention. “We need to have autonomy over what that curriculum looks like,” he says, “and we need to be able to ensure that it reflects the needs of the kids we have in our schools. My school in Bristol may be very different to how a school up in Derby might look and the demographics will be different. The nature of the children you have in the room will often have a lot of complexity within their needs, within their life circumstance, within their mental health needs. I think one of the problems in terms of how you teach mental health is that everybody's experiences, circumstances, brains, are completely different; especially at those early ages of childhood development.”

Teaching is not the same as lecturing. It involves not just the imparting of information but the creation of situations where that information can be explored. A curriculum guides what a lesson should cover, not the way it should be taught. Given that mental health lessons may only be taught once a year, and within a non-statutory subject “the fact that the schools don't necessarily have the resource, the expertise or the time in which to write these schemes of work which they would then teach” means in Arminger’s experience that “they normally get ones that are off the shelf. The majority that I've seen and that I've tried to use are ones that don't necessarily explore the essentials of mental health that kids really need to know.”

“The main things we should be looking at,” says Arminger, “are teaching children how their brains work, about thought, about how to stay well. One of the best things I ever did within my provision was actually teach young people emotions so they understood how emotions worked. It's all very well saying we're going to teach a mental health lesson but unless you've got a whole school ethos and you’re all bought into it and you're understanding how important mental health is and you have those structures in, then it's not going to work."

Post-awareness holes

"None of that is in any of the packages that are off the shelf. It's all based at recognising the signs of mental illness and acute need and also talking about resilience. You go about a mass awareness raising programme and you will have young people there that will go 'yeah, that's me, I probably need to talk to somebody' and if your resources are already stretched and you haven't gone about making sure you have available provision post-awareness then you're gonna possibly be in an even worse situation.”

Arminger worries that mental health lessons will turn into signposting: “saying 'well, this is what depression looks like; this is what anxiety looks like’, and talking about acute needs rather than mental health and how to stay well. At the moment people want to talk about how to be resilient yet they don't necessarily give kids the tools with which to do that apart from talk to them about the fact that that they need to have friends and they need to form relationships.”

Ultimately, it will be the job of teachers within schools to turn whatever is finally mandated into a learning experience that benefits all of the children they teach. While the rest of us campaign for it happen, it’s our professional educators that have to put it into action. There is much room for fruitful dialogue between people with lived experience, mental health professionals and educators, but time and money are against us. “I'm very lucky,” says Arminger, “in that I have training and I have understanding but many people don't have access to it because they're in school full time, not able to access CPD, not able to access the right information.”

In our desire to win the argument that mental health education in schools is vital, we must also take up the argument that proper funds to support its delivery must follow. Teachers and schools need to answer the very practical questions of who, how and when and from what budget. “We sometimes expect teachers to fix everything, says Arminger. “We say 'we've got a problem with this and therefore we need to do this in schools'. We've got a heck of a tab to have to pick up.”

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