New Beacon’s Headmaster, Mike Piercy, tells us about their recent mental health conference

Our influence as educators has never been more important than it is right now. We are all concerned with academic achievement, educating the whole child, stimulating every part of the brain and, above all, personal development. It is the last of these which has come into sharper focus in recent years, and in aid of that, we held a mental health conference this May: Helping Young People Navigate the 21st Century. After three years of trying to run this event, our efforts were finally rewarded with invaluable advice from a host of experts on mental health and wellbeing.

Dick Moore opened on behalf of the Charlie Waller Trust mental health charity, telling a very personal story. Touching on neuroscience, he explained that most mental health disorders begin in adolescence, and gave impassioned advice to help with that. It is easy to forget the privilege and responsibility of working with and shaping young people. Somewhat clichéd but we all remember certain teachers who had a profound, positive influence on our lives. 

The next morning, Dr. Pooky Knightsmith picked up the trail, talking of Adverse Childhood Experiences. She advised us to look out for the quiet ones who ‘fly under the radar’, to notice, to check in, and to ask not ‘what’s wrong?’ but ‘what’s happened?’. As adults, parents and teachers we feel we should be the fixers. Pooky and other speakers helped the audience unpack the backpack of responsibility we all carry, giving us the tools to help young people fix themselves. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, ‘What we want to see is the child in pursuit of knowledge and not knowledge in pursuit of the child’ – we want  children to develop the strength and confidence to take charge of their own lives, while knowing where to find help when needed.

Later in the conference, Richard Burnett of Tonbridge School and co-founder of Mindfulness in Schools Project (MiSP), slowed the pace by giving us a simple mindfulness exercise; a Personal Development Coach emphasised values; a GP spoke about clinical support and a counsellor unpacked his own toolkit. Pooky Knightsmith closed the conference by reminding us of self help, pointing out that, as with the oxygen mask in an aircraft, if we have no oxygen we cannot help others.

The range of experts we heard from was truly diverse, each with different approaches and perspectives, yet there were common strands. My big takeaway was that we have to ask: are we too obsessed with achievement? And do we confuse that achievement with success? The world can be complicated and competitive (arguably increasingly so), and it’s important that children aren’t crushed by that while they’re still trying to grow. I sometimes talk to our pupils about ‘realistic ambition’. Ambition is healthy; unrealistic ambition, the pressure of expectation, not so, and it is potentially seriously damaging to mental health. As I take parents round the school, we stop and listen to the happy sounds of children at play – children happy to be at school – and that’s the trick. Let us not be too obsessed with achievement. Let us focus on emotional wellbeing. Individual personal achievement will follow.

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