We feel very honoured to be the first school in the North East region to be given the opportunity to work with world record holder and business leader Masha Gordon and her charity GRIT&ROCK, which was founded with the aim of using outdoor learning to support girls in developing a greater sense of determination and self-confidence. The ethos of the charity resonates perfectly with every school struggling to get to grips with what is now widely described as a mental health crisis in schools.
The statistics on children’s mental health are frightening enough but to witness the rapid increase of these issues manifesting in our own schools highlights how imperative the need is to help young people manage their mental health more effectively. Two clear trends have emerged in the last three years: an increase in the number of students who have presented serious mental health concerns and secondly a rise in anxiety issues with Year 11 students. It is clear that schools must take a preventative approach in tackling this crisis, yet with children’s mental health services seriously underfunded within the local NHS budget and CAMHS stretched to breaking point, there seems a worrying lack of qualified health care professionals available to work in schools. We seem to be woefully underprepared to tackle what is commonly referred to as a mental health epidemic. It will undoubtedly take time for the NHS and school system to build an infrastructure which can deal adequately with this. The development of SCHOOLS NorthEast’s mental health commission, Healthy MindED, is certainly a step in the right direction.
Despite these barriers we have to look at what we can do now to try to prevent serious mental health problems developing. Improving the capacity of our students to be more emotionally resilient to stressful situations in the hope that they will ‘bend in the wind, not snap in the storm,’ is a step towards this. Our work with Masha Gordon is an example of just one of the ways schools can be proactive in putting together intervention programmes to better equip our students for the emotional demands of Key Stage 4.
While no one would argue with the ambition to ‘raise the bar’ and improve standards, it is inevitable that current reforms to curriculum, assessment and accountability measures will put additional pressure on students. From speaking to Heads of Department, it is obvious how challenging the newly reformed GCSEs for each subject will become. From a student’s perspective it is alarming to consider this. There are inevitably going to be students who have found Key Stage 3 difficult and are entering more challenging Key Stage 4 courses and ultimately GCSE exams with trepidation. With courses having limited coursework or controlled assessments and being totally focused on terminal examinations at the end of Year 11, students will undoubtedly feel increasing pressure at this time.
Based on our knowledge of students in Key Stage 3, we have identified a group of 25 girls in Year 10 who have started GCSE courses this year. All girls have been described as ‘lacking in self-confidence’ and we think they will struggle with the emotional demands of GCSEs. We have also added to the group five Year 12 girls. These girls have also been carefully selected. They have come through the challenges of Year 10 and Year 11, in many cases overcoming significant obstacles to do so. They will provide excellent informal mentoring to our Year 10 girls.
There will be three physical phases to the programme. The first will be in the academy where we will teach the girls to climb following the NICAS climbing curriculum. They will then join Masha for the expedition phases which will be held locally on the North Yorkshire Moors, eventually building up to the ‘peak experience,’ an international expedition which will leave from Chamonix.
There is no question that this will be physically challenging for the students concerned; they would certainly not be in a position to complete the expedition phases today and will have to work hard and train for it. We hope that through this challenge a significant amount of learning will take place and we will use the context of the outdoor environment to develop resilience. The whole concept of grit and determination will naturally come up in the outdoor setting in a much more obvious way than it ever could in a classroom. We think that this type of experiential learning will be the most effective way of developing resilience and self-awareness about their own mental toughness.
To look at this in greater detail, we will also work with AQR, an international organisation who have developed psychometric testing on mental toughness. While this notion of mental toughness has been explored predominantly in sport contexts, it will be fascinating to contribute to some longitudinal research on whether mental toughness can be developed and crucially whether any resilience or grit gained on the ‘hill’ can be transferred to a classroom context.