How to keep young minds healthy
Interview with the Head: Liz Hewer, St Georges School, Ascot
St George’s School in Ascot is one of just two boarding schools in the UK to have been awarded the Mental Health Kitemark for Boarding Schools from the Carnegie Centre of Excellence for Mental Health in Schools at Leeds Beckett University. This is hugely relevant as we strive to prepare our children for tomorrow’s world and TLB is thrilled to have the opportunity to discuss this achievement further with the headmistress, Mrs Liz Hewer.
Q1: Firstly, congratulations on achieving this award. In order to appreciate how it was achieved, can you give us an insight into the issues that were of concern that lead to St Georges creating initiatives to improve the emotional health and wellbeing for its staff and pupils?
St George’s is renowned for the importance placed on each pupil’s well-being; developing respect for yourself and consideration for others is at the heart of the school ethos. We all have a mental health, as well as a physical health, and society is beginning to realise the importance of looking after both our physical and our mental health in order to lead happy and fulfilling adult lives. Being a teenager can be a challenging time; young people change and grow physically and mentally, and supporting the girls on their individual journeys is something we value highly at St George’s. Parents often comment on how their daughter’s confidence has blossomed at St George’s and we are proud to provide girls with an environment where they can be themselves, without prejudice or judgement, and where they do not feel self-conscious. As such, I have always felt that looking after pupil wellbeing was something we did well at St George’s and by applying for the Kite Mark it gave us a framework in which to audit what we do and why, as well as evidencing initiatives to improve emotional health and well-being for both pupils and staff.
Q2: How are your initiatives and policies implemented on a day to day level?
Can you give some examples or case studies?
We strive to provide an education that prepares girls for their futures in tomorrow’s world. Young people are more connected than ever, yet true connectedness is not living in the often shallow echo chambers of social media, or relying on the internet for answers, it is about making meaningful connections with others through work and play, within school and in the wider community, and building the confidence to develop a strong sense of self which is crucial to their wellbeing.
We have always been a school that places a strong focus on co-curricular activities and trips. All girls participate in a vast array of clubs each day after lessons and success in sports, music, drama, dance, art and all other spheres is celebrated along with academic success. Building on this, our focus this year has been on ’balance’ and, in particular, educating the girls to become confident and capable with technology whilst developing healthy relationships with their screens. Since September 2018 teaching staff and girls in Years 7 to 11 have been given a school-owned Chromebook. As well as enabling exciting developments for teaching and learning, these devices are configured with appropriate apps and tools as ‘work-devices’, distinctly different from the devices they have at home, or in boarding, for ‘play’ (communications, social media etc.). This has been a great success and we have been used as an example to other schools by C Learning (one of the top IT Education specialist companies who work with many schools) of how to successfully implement a new IT strategy. Girls no longer need to use their mobile phones for academic work, indeed younger pupils are not allowed them in school, and I feel this helps them to develop an increasingly healthy and balanced approach to work and play.
We have a team of highly qualified, caring and intuitive staff who are trained in supporting young people with concerns and offering advice, and who work together to ensure effective support. We are also very proud that each year many of our Sixth Formers choose to become peer counsellors, trained by our School Counsellor to offer support in a variety of ways to younger girls across the school.
Another important outcome of the Kite Mark audit was identifying all the ways in which we seek to support the mental health of our staff. This is something we are continuing to work on and I was delighted earlier this term to be able to join up to one of the new weekly staff yoga classes hosted at St George’s.
Q3: What can parents learn from your policies?
What advice do you have for parents with children at home on how they can be more aware of their child’s mental health, how to spot potential problems early on, and prevent problems in the future?
We all lead busy lives which seem to be increasingly so and giving face-to-face time to young people is increasingly challenging, but so important – especially when they may rather have the head buried in their phone! So, the most important message I think I can give to parents is to give their children time, and to talk to them and find out what is really going on in their life. They may not always articulate it, but simple pleasures such as a dog-walk, playing a sport or a phone-free meal are greatly valued by young people in the way they are able to properly connect with their parents.
I also regularly speak to the girls, and parents, about the importance of sleep, and they are all very used to me reminding them to ensure that screens are put away at meal times and removed from bedrooms at night time, as we do with our boarders in our junior boarding house.
The most important thing for parents, and young people, is to seek support and advice if they have any concerns about a young person’s wellbeing. At St George’s this will often be through the girl’s tutor or our School Nurse but the girls are also very good at looking out for each other and raising concerns if they are worried about a friend. For those of us in education, there is rarely a situation that we have not come across before, and we have the knowledge to help and know where to access further support should that be needed.
Q4: For parents looking for further help and advice, where would you suggest they go.
What books, resources can you recommend for further reading on this topic?
One of my favourite commentators on mental health and wellbeing, especially for her work with young people, is the refreshing and straight-talking Natasha Devon MBE, writer and campaigner. Natasha visits a vast number of schools across the country and talks to young people and we were lucky enough to have Natasha visit St George’s last summer as our guest speaker at our annual Prize Giving. I would strongly recommend her recent book ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Being Mental: an A-Z’ for anyone interested in these issues, which she tackles with her characteristic combination of experience, expertise and humour.