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Healthy: Inside and Out

At the start of Children's Mental Health Week, Muddy talks to Mark Mortimer, Head of Warminster School in Wiltshire, about the importance of mental wellness in the school environment

Children’s Mental Health Week starts this Monday, 4th February, and we at Muddy were lucky enough to be invited for a cuppa with Mark Mortimer, Head of Warminster, to pick his brains about what steps they are taking to be healthy, inside and out.

Warminster is a 300-year-old co-ed, all-through day and boarding school on the edge of Salisbury Plain, that rightly prides itself on nurturing happy, confident and community-spirited pupils. Sitting pretty in its lovely market town half an hour south of Bath, it has 60 glorious acres to roam around in and the picturesque Wiltshire countryside to feast your eyes on. In our view, it is perfect for parents looking for an all-round education for their children, who believe that extra-curricular activities and what happens outside the classroom are just as important as what happens in the classroom. Hence us hot-footing it to the Head himself to chat pastoral care, good mental health and wellbeing amongst today’s students.

Muddy Stilettos: What do you think defines a mentally healthy school?

Mark Mortimer: Any good school in the world is good because of the quality of its pastoral care.

A mentally healthy school is one in which there is a widespread awareness and appreciation of the importance of being mentally healthy, what that means, how to achieve it and where to turn for help. It also requires a culture in which discussion of mental health is encouraged, where there is no stigma attached and where there is access to mental health resources, e.g. counsellors or a listening service.

 

Are you doing anything at Warminster to mark Children’s Mental Health Week?

Yes, although we want to avoid the week being seen as a gimmick or just for show.

There will be sessions during the week for all seven year groups: these will look at, for example, the value of exercise, healthy relationships and the impact on one’s sense of self-worth, emotional wellbeing, effective coping strategies and how to spot and reduce abuse of others. We will use the week to reinforce and reiterate many of messages that we promote and discuss throughout the year anyway.

Has the ethos of teaching changed in recent years to accommodate mental health and wellness? Have schools moved away from a focus on exams?

At a practical level, it is now common to see mental health or wellbeing as part of the school curriculum. At the same time, I think there’s greater understanding that, important as they certainly are, exams are not the most important thing a child gets from school. However, get the wider aspects of education right and success in the classroom and in exams tends to follow. That’s the key point.

Good schools have always understood that there is almost always a very close connection between academic and pastoral problems. There is rarely one without the other. Whether you’re 15 or 50, at school or in an office, you are unlikely to thrive if you’re not motivated and happy or are feeling insecure or unsupported.

However, I hesitate to say that everyone has moved away from a focus on exam results. There are still too many people who do not look at a school beyond this criterion.

How do you promote wellbeing within school life?

The culture and ethos of the School is all about community, supporting one another, not being a bystander and standing up for what you know to be right. This is talked about a lot, for example in assembly and tutor time. There is a lot of emphasis on values. Similarly, the concept of wellbeing is linked to the School’s aim of helping each child to find their own core purpose and interests and to develop a sense of the duty of service – be that locally, nationally or globally. These are all themes which support wellbeing and positive mental health.

Last term, we held a Mental Health Awareness Day that was organised and run by sixth-formers and comprised workshops, talks and activities to promote a better understanding of the issues surrounding mental health. There is also a pupil-led ‘Mental Health Matters’ group at the School: it meets weekly and has introduced several important initiatives.

How do you at Warminster cater for the whole child?

The key point is that a ‘good education’ is as much about what happens outside the classroom as inside. Exam results are important, but more important is the development of self-confidence, self-esteem, emotional intelligence and so on. Therefore, co-curricular activities, independent learning, social learning (e.g. living in a boarding house), the development of life skills and good relationships across year groups are key components too. As I’ve said, high-quality pastoral care is crucial, as is working closely with parents and treating each child as an individual. Fundamentally, schools are all about people and relationships. Oh, and food – the variety and quality provided by our catering team is outstanding and that healthy, balanced choice of meals has a role to play as well.

What do you do if you see a child struggling with anxiety?

We offer support straight away; hopefully, the pupil will feel able to talk to someone, be that tutor, the Chaplain, school nurse, a teacher or another member of staff. Parents and the child’s teachers will be informed and consulted as necessary (this sometimes needs sensitive handling) and together, with the child’s needs at the centre, a plan will be devised to try and tackle to underlying causes and help them develop tactics to overcome their anxiety. 

Do parents interfere too much in their children’s extra curricular interests?

Sometimes, but sometimes parents aren’t interested enough in what their children enjoy or do and that creates problems too. There’s a balance to be struck. Our job as a school or as parents is to provide opportunities and encouragement to try new thing. Every child is good at something and we should help them find and nurture it; I want each child to leave Warminster with a range of genuine interests about which they can talk enthusiastically. What we mustn’t do is tell them what those interests should be or try and force them to share ours. If they end up doing so, great. If they end up having very different interests, that’s great too.

What about kids who are happy just studying?

Frankly, I’m not sure I would believe a pupil who said this. I can’t actually think of any who have, and I would be concerned that something was wrong if they did. There is so much evidence, both empirical and anecdotal, of the strong links between wellbeing and other factors – such as physical activity, a range of interests, a wider purpose and a sense of service. ‘Just studying’ simply cannot provide the variety and richness required to lead a purposeful, fulfilling (and therefore happy) life.

Is the mental health crisis in children a little exaggerated? If not, what can we do to ease this?

There is no simple answer to this. Undoubtedly, we are becoming more open as a society and better able to talk about mental health. That is a very positive development. The more people talk openly, the greater the level of awareness, the more effective the intervention, treatment and prevention. Good.

At the same time, I do worry that the constant references in the media and at educational conferences to a ‘crisis’ are helping fuel it. The danger then is that children may feel mental health issues are ineluctable. Linked to this is the danger of simply heaping all the blame on things like social media and the internet. It’s more complicated than that and simplicity can lead to scaremongering and diversion from other causes. By no means, however, do I underestimate the potentially devastating impact of online manipulation and cyberbullying.

Dealing with adolescence and puberty is difficult, we all remember that. Acute self-consciousness, fragile self-esteem, physical changes, increasing emotional complexity…all of these things can bewilder young people and cause feelings of sadness, confusion and doubt. But they don’t automatically mean mental illness. Rather, they are part of growing up – understanding that we all have bad days and learning how to deal with them, learning how to navigate through changing and sometimes difficult relationships – with family, friends, teachers.

Parents and parenting have a key role – as they always have – in my opinion. Young people need help to develop resilience, self-confidence and high self-esteem. If as parents we hover over them all the time, constantly try to shield them from risk or danger and step in too quickly on their behalf, the message they absorb is that they’re not trusted. A key part of education is making your own decisions and choices, making mistakes, getting things wrong and learning from them. Parents need to be careful not to inadvertently stunt children’s development of resilience, self-reliance and the ability to bounce back from setbacks. Parenting is all about teaching our children not to need us anymore. In the wise words of Haim Ginott, the Israeli teacher and psychologist:

“As parents our need is to be needed; as teenagers their need is not to need us.” 

Visit Warminster and see for yourself at their Open Day on 27 April 10am-1pm. Read our review to the Senior School here, and the just as impressive Prep here.

Warminster School, Church Street, Warminster, Wilts BA12 8PJ, tel: 01985 210100, warminsterschool.org.uk

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