National Union of Teachers’ Annual Conference

I attended the National Conference a few weeks ago and was hugely moved by the speakers and the messages they shared. The fragility of the mental health of our students and staff was one of the issues that came through loud and clear.

Below I’ve listed some of the information that I believe, will clearly have an impact on the mental health of staff and students.

Testing and mental well-being

  • Christine Blower used the term “drill and kill” to refer to the overzealous use of testing
  • Are schools becoming exam factories? What’s happened to learning being fun?
  • Christine Blower also talked about the fact that parents have the power and the choice to do as she did, and remove their children from KS2 tests. Many parents may not be aware of this.
  • When ANY child fails, staff are being advised to make them repeat the test! Repeat, repeat & repeat again! Will their disability, learning gap or lack of knowledge go away if we keep testing them? Testing is not a magic wand that results in higher attainment!
  • A member spoke about a visually impaired child who could complete writing tasks when allowed to write in print. He needed a magnifying glass to read it back, but he could manage this. He’s doing really well! However, ALL children must be able to join their letters, so she’s being told to insist that he does the same. This makes him frustrated and unwilling to write.
  • Where’s the sense in blindly forcing this attainment standard on all children? Shouldn’t there be different standards for the many children who can’t cope with the existing ones? One size cannot fit all!
  • One member spoke about using a stopwatch to show that her 7 year olds can read 90 words in a minute! How would you perform if someone used a stopwatch while you read? Another box which needs to be ticked!
  • What are the tests for? If they were for the benefit of children, or if they helped them have better life chances; teachers wouldn’t oppose them. Sadly, this is not the case.
  • All the tests achieve is to show pupils what they DON’T know. They result in children being labelled negatively, and often puts them off going to school. They no longer want to learn.
  • We heard about children self harming or making themselves sick because of testing. Are you aware of the fact that an increasing number of children are doing this?

The above points cause anxiety, frustration and the dis-empowerment of students. How can that not effect their mental health?

Academies and mental well-being 

  • The inequality gap is already, and will contnue to, increase in academies.
  • Members spoke about children with SEN and EAL becoming second class citizens as academies don’t and won’t, want to take accept them in their schools
  • We also learned of cases where they ARE accepted, but they’re put on different rolls, so they don’t affect their league tables.
  • We heard that the children who were accepted, at BEST, were separated from the others and they are taught by a higher level teaching assistant, as opposed to, a fully qualified teacher!
What kind of message does this send to these vulnerable children? Will it improve their self esteem? Will it make them less anxious? Will they feel included? All of these things will effect their mental well-being. Adults who are meant to educate ALL children, will be instead part of a system that segregates and penalises them.

Anti-Islamic attitudes and mental well-being

  • Alex Kenny spoke about Prevent and said “You are creating sense of otherness and making it harder for us to keep our young people safe”
  • Prevent is a witch hunt of Muslim children who have been labelled as terrorists before they can speak!!! One child was under suspicion because be pronounced ‘cucumber’ wrongly. He was 2 years old! They thought he said ‘cooker bomb
  • As we know, children often spell words incorrectly. One member spoke about a child writing a story and referring to an uncle hitting him. Most teachers would raise that as a safeguarding issue. However, what was picked up, was the child’s spelling error for the word ‘terraced!’ It resulted in the child being interviewed by police, because he wrote ‘terrorist’ instead of ‘terraced.’
  • Teachers are being encouraged to label first and think later!
  • Sir Michael Wilshaw has said that he will downgrade a school if face veils are a barrier to learning. Why has he chosen to focus on this specific barrier, IF it is one? What about other more urgent barriers, such as, poverty, fear, housing, bullying, lack of support.
  • I have tweet about this using the hashtag #TooYoungToBeLabelledATerrorist

How can any of this not effect the mental health of staff, parents and children?

I can imagine Muslim children being too scared to write about anything in case they spell it wrong. I would also understand ig they wanted to avoid speaking in case they pronounced a word in a way that made others label them a terrorist. If they didn’t have the maturity to work that out themselves, I’m sure their parents would tell them to be quiet in school, and write as little as possible, for the same reasons! Unfortunately, this is not just a scenario that I have foreseen, but it’s actually become a reality! Members reported that children are being silenced to avoid suspicion!

Poverty, housing and and mental well-being

  • The Welsh Government wants to improve funding for children in Wales BUT the Barnett Formula keeps them the POOREST in Europe!
  • The government expects children to learn and perform well even though they’re working on moving them out of the richer areas and rehousing them in poorer ones.
  • Members spoke about children disappearing without notice as families are forcibly rehoused overnight.
  • Some children have moved BUT not been lucky enough to get a school place! Is their right to education not important because they’re poor?
  • In terms of emotional well-being, these families don’t get a chance to say bye to any of the friends they’ve made or speak with staff whom they may have formed a relationship with.
  • On a different note, how can teachers meet performance related targets when children disappear without notice?
  • Jeremy Corbyn spoke about the fact that 1/2 million children live in poverty and 1 million families are dependent on food banks.
It is clear that poverty has a negative impact on physical and emotional well-being.
How would you function if you were in this situation? Would you live with your bags packed in case you had to suddenly leave your home and be rehoused somewhere far away? Would you fear that if you didn’t, you’d lose some of the few belongings you had?
How would feel about the Government placing poor families together, so they’re out of sight in richer areas?
Would you feel as if you didn’t matter to anyone? To the friends made at school and to the staff who cared?

Services to support children with mental health issues

  • Bullying this has been proven to effect mental health but cuts means that needed resources aren’t available.
  • Cahms only deals with emergency cases but even then, a child who was self-harming was told to wait 2 weeks for an appointment. She had taken an overdose prior to being referred.
  • On average three children in each class, have mental health issues.
  • In some schools, staff are being trained as learning mentors to support children with mental health issues, to help them transition, to deal with grief and so on. However, they’re unable to deliver this needed mentoring because they’re re-timetabled to support the increasing amount of the children whose support is being reduced or cut completely! Schools can’t afford to meet the increasing needs being placed on them, whilst their funding keeps being cut!
  • A member spoke about the families where the children are given breakfast and lunch at school. The adults in these families dread the holidays, because they don’t have the ability to feed their children during that time!
  • If all schools become academies, they will HAVE to go to the private sector for educational psychologists, SEN support etc. Will they have the money for it? Will they have the desire to use their funds on these types of services? Will they choose to stop supporting those who are in desperate need of these services?
This is a dire situation which can only get worse as austerity cuts continue!

There are many things in life that we can’t control but this isn’t one of them. Let’s share this information, empower ourselves, motivate others, be vocal and stand together to fight for a better tomorrow. 

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