You can only focus on one thing at a time

A lens refracts light to focus on one point (the focal point, F); our brains work in a similar way

In this week’s assemblies, I have been going through the Behaviour for Learning Top 5 we are focusing on this term:

  1. Strong start: We arrive on time, line up and enter the classroom calmly
  2. Full attention: We are immediately silent and face the speaker when called to attention 
  3. Full effort: We apply ourselves with our full effort to the learning tasks set
  4. Full focus: We focus all our attention on the learning tasks set
  5. Calm finish: At the end of the lesson we wait in silence for the member of staff to dismiss us

Part of the assembly demonstrated why it is important that we focus all our attention on the learning tasks set. The reason for this is that it’s not possible for the human brain to think about two different tasks at once.

Of course, it is possible for us to multi-task. We can walk and talk at the same time, or we can eat a snack whilst reading a book. This is possible because some of the process have become automatic in our brains: they are happening without us really thinking about then. In the examples above, the walking and eating are automatic – we can do them without thinking about them – meaning that our brain’s attention can be freed up to think about the talking or the reading.

What we can’t do, is actually think about two attention-demanding things at once.

We might think that we can – but actually what is happening is that our brain focuses on one thing, and then switches to the other thing, and then switches back to the first thing. This process is called code switching, and some people can do it faster than others – but what we can’t do is focus on two things at the same time. Like the illustration of the cats above, our focus shifts from one thing to another – but it can only be on one thing at a time.

My favourite demonstration of this is the card-sort-and-maths-questions task, as shown to students (with some helpful volunteers) in the assemblies this week.

In this demo, a willing volunteer is given a standard deck of cards and asked to sort them into suits, with each suit in number order, as shown in the illustration above. This is a simple enough task, but it requires the volunteer to think about it to make sure they identify the card, recognise it, and place it appropriately on the table in front of them. The audience watches the volunteer sorting the cards.

Then, I introduce a complication: I ask the volunteer to answer some simple mental arithmetic questions. For example:

  • What is half of 90?
  • What is 37 more than 60?
  • What is half of 8.2?
  • A television programme starts at 11:05 and ends at 12:15. How long did the programme last?
  • Three fifty pence coins have a mass of 18 grams. What is the mass of one fifty pence coin?
  • What is half of 144?
  • What is double 3.6?

Again, on their own these questions are all solvable – with a little bit of thought. So, what happens when I ask the volunteer the mental arithmetic questions, whilst they are sorting the playing cards?

Their hands stop moving.

If they try to keep sorting the cards, they can’t answer the arithmetic question. If they try to answer the arithmetic question, they can’t keep sorting the cards. It’s no reflection on your mathematical ability (or your card-sorting ability, for that matter): it’s a simple psychological fact that your brain can’t do both things at the same time.

So, why does this matter?

The reason why full focus is the fourth item on our behaviour for learning top 5, is that we need to concentrate fully on the task in hand if we are going to do it well. If something distracts us, or takes our attention away from the learning task, we simply cannot be thinking about the task – and therefore, we are not learning effectively. We are like Dug, the dog from the Pixar film “Up”, whose attention is dragged away from the conversation at hand whenever he sees a squirrel…

For our students to be successful, they need to avoid their own personal “squirrels” – the things that might distract them – to ensure that they stay focused on the learning at hand. That requires self-discipline, concentration and effort, but the impact on learning is significant.

And that is why we have made it our focus this term.

Behaviour for learning: getting the basics right

We know that good behaviour is essential for learning to take place. We reinforce this with our Code of Conduct and Effort Grades, and we incentivise it through our rewards system. We know that, over the past few years, it has been difficult to maintain consistency. COVID lockdowns, followed by periods of high staff and student absence, and the disruption to rooming in the Academy caused by works to Stuart House and Lancaster House have all contributed to a “stop-start” feeling for some classes, groups and individual students. We are certainly not alone in this: we have heard of many local schools having to close to entire year groups due to staff shortages this term, which is thankfully not a step that we have had to take.

We hope that we will now be moving into a more settled period. Stuart House is open, and the long ten-day isolation periods for COVID infections are a thing of the past. Given the disruption of recent years, attendance is more important than ever – students cannot afford to miss any more school.

But simply turning up isn’t enough. For real learning to happen, students need to work hard. Learning is difficult; it requires effort. And this is where behaviour for learning comes in.

Behaviour for learning is about more than just being kind, polite and respectful. It is about more than just wearing the correct uniform and bringing the right equipment and making sure your mobile phone is not seen or heard around the Academy. These things are important, of course – but behaviour for learning is about engaging in those actions that will enable you to take in information accurately and store it in your long term memory for later retrieval. It is rooted in our learning values, which are displayed around the Academy every day. We believe in the value of:

  • Determined and consistent effort
  • A hunger to learn new things
  • Challenging ourselves to go beyond what is comfortable
  • Viewing setbacks and mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow
  • Seeking and responding to feedback
  • Encouraging others to succeed

It is these values which underpin our approach to learning across the curriculum.

This is one of my favourite videos to illustrate “passive” learning: these characters are well-behaved, but they aren’t able to take action to “unstick” themselves when they get stuck, or to apply effort to solve a problem for themselves. They are forced to wait around for someone to come and help them out. These are not Churchill learners!

When we return after the Easter break, we will be working hard with all our students to refocus on the key elements of behaviour for learning. This includes the Code of Conduct and Effort Grades, and our learning values. But we will also be clarifying and reinforcing our expectations of behaviour for learning in lessons.

In every lesson, every time, we expect students to follow our Behaviour for Learning Top 5:

  1. Strong start: We arrive on time, line up and enter the classroom calmly
  2. Full attention: We are immediately silent and face the speaker when called to attention 
  3. Full effort: We apply ourselves with our full effort to the learning tasks set
  4. Full focus: We focus all our attention on the learning tasks set
  5. Calm finish: At the end of the lesson we wait in silence for the member of staff to dismiss us

The return to school after Easter gives us a perfect opportunity to ensure that our students make the most of every moment they have at school, and use it to make progress in their learning. Staff will be working together to ensure that these expectations are clearly explained to students, and that they are supported and challenged to meet them – in every lesson, every time. Because, after the disruption of the past couple of years, we can’t afford to waste a single moment.

Working with ASCL Council

Since 2019 I have been one of four school leaders representing the south west region on ASCL Council. This has been – and continues to be – a privilege and an honour. In this week’s blog I hope to give you an insight into what it means to work as part of ASCL, especially through the upheaval of the pandemic.

What is ASCL?

ASCL is the Association of School and College Leaders. It is a trade union and a professional association, representing more than 21,500 leaders of primary, secondary and post-16 education from across the UK. ASCL members are responsible for the education of more than four million children and young people and children.

As an organisation, ASCL speaks on behalf of its members, but acts on behalf of children and young people. This has been most clearly seen in the role of ASCL’s General Secretary, Geoff Barton, who is often seen and heard on the news putting the view of schools when an education story hits the headlines.

ASCL’s General Secretary, Geoff Barton

As well as being a trade union which provides advice and support, ASCL works on behalf of it members to shape national education policy- and this is where ASCL Council comes in.

What is ASCL Council?

Council is the policy making body of ASCL. It is made up of elected members, representing all the regions of the UK and all sectors of education, from early years and primary through to further education. The Council meets three times during the academic year to debate ‘hot’ topics, and agree the position that ASCL should take on behalf of it members. These positions are then used to lobby government to try and promote policies that are in the interests of schools and colleges, and point out practical difficulties in policy proposals coming out of government.

The main committees are:

  • Conditions and Employment which includes pay, conditions, recruitment, retention, workload, employer engagement, pensions
  • Funding 
  • Inclusion and Equalities which covers inclusion, equalities, closing the gap for pupils and staff, and performance of groups
  • Leadership and Governance which includes leader and teacher development, governance, inspections, and accountability
  • Curriculum and Assessment which covers curriculum, teaching and learning, assessment, and qualifications – this is the committee that I am a part of.

The work of the elected members of Council is supported by policy specialists. These are people who work specifically for ASCL, to take the views and positions of Council to government ministers and officials, Ofsted, Ofqual, exam boards and anyone else involved in education decision making, to try and influence those decisions for the good of the system.

I stood for election for Council in 2019. My aim was to make sure that the perspective of rural school was represented in policy discussions, which are often made in big cities and don’t always take account of schools in the countryside! I also wanted to play my part in representing my colleagues in the south west at a national level.

What have we done?

Since I have been part of Council, we have discussed such matters as:

  • The role of multi-academy trusts in the future education system
  • What role – if any – artificial intelligence could or should play in assessment and exams
  • The replacements for exams during the pandemic in 2020 and 2021
  • The Department for Education’s guidance on reading
  • The curriculum under the new Ofsted framework
  • How students could and should apply for university places
  • The role of BTECs and T-levels in the post-16 curriculum
  • The balance between central government control and school autonomy through the pandemic and beyond
  • How to ensure that education gives students from disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to achieve as well as their non-disadvantaged peers
  • The funding and provision for students with special educational needs and disabilities
  • The fairness of exam grading, where each year a third of students do not achieve a “pass” grade in English and Maths due to the way the system works

And so much more!

I have also been privileged this year to join the ASCL Executive Committee as the organisation’s Assistant Honorary Treasurer. This has given me a seat around the ASCL “top table” and provided me with an even greater insight into the engagement between the education sector and the politicians and officials responsible for the system.

Central to the work of the past few years has been the development and publication of ASCL’s Blueprint for a fairer education system. This key document sets out how we, as school and college leaders, would like to see the education system develop over the coming years

What have I got out of it?

I have had the opportunity to meet the previous Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, and his successor, Nadhim Zahawi, to discuss policy positions and provide feedback from the “front line” of education. I have also met with Baroness Barran MBE, the Minister for the School System, and Bridget Phillipson, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Education. Often these are “Chatham House Rules” meetings so the discussions can be free and open. What has struck me about all these meetings is how willing the politicians are to listen. Although they don’t always agree with the position we are putting forward, I do see the impact of hearing things from people actually doing the job, day in, day out. So, whilst not all government education policies are received with rapturous applause by the profession or the general public, some of them are considerably better than they would have been due to ASCL’s intervention!

It has been fascinating to be involved in these high-level discussions about policy at a national system level. Thinking about the implications for all schools, not just my own, has made me think about how the education system works as a whole – and how that filters down to the staff, students and families of Churchill Academy & Sixth Form. Being part of this conversation also means that I am well-informed about policy decisions coming down the track, as well as the thinking, aims and intentions behind those decisions.

Council has also enabled me to make connections with school leaders across the country, including in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, to understand how different schools are responding to the pressures and challenges of leading and managing schools today. I have learned a great deal from their approaches – and shared some of Churchill’s excellent practice with them in return. It is a genuine collaboration, and it means that we are able to support one another towards greater success in the future.

Welcome to the new Stuart House block

The Green Room in Stuart House, March 2022

This week we have reopened the Stuart House block after a complete internal rebuild of the facility. The Stuart House tutors, and the Humanities teachers and their classes, have been spread across the school since September – but now they have a shiny new home!

The interior of Stuart, August 2021

Works began last summer, with the removal of all internal walls and disconnection of services, to give our contractors the “blank slate” to work from. It was quite something to see everything ripped out of the building and the cavernous space left behind! From there, the building contractors began putting the new walls, ceilings and floors back in.

Over the past few years, we have learned a lot about “what works” in classroom design, and this is a further opportunity to put that into practice. Sound-deadening panels in the wall construction, and acoustic “pillows” above the classroom roof tiles, mean that students can concentrate on their learning without being disturbed by sound from next door. Climate control units in each room will mean that they will be warm in winter, cool in summer, and the air will be filtered and exchanged constantly.

We have also improved classroom size and layout so students are able to be seated with a good view of the coloured “teaching wall” which is a standard feature of our classroom design. Where possible, we have also equipped all rooms with new classroom chairs, designed to aid good posture and focus, as well as desks. And, of course, motion-activated LED lighting is standard to keep energy usage down, in line with our sustainability priority.

The new Green Room social space has been designed with chunky “noughts and crosses” style seating, and indoor picnic benches for students to use at break and lunchtime. The Green Room is a dedicated Year 8 social space, and they can’t wait to get in and make use of it!

The project is the latest phase of our ongoing redevelopment of the learning environment, which has included:

And we’re not done yet. We have another bid in to replace the temporary buildings which currently house S18, S19 and S20 – we should hear back about that next month.

The “behind the scenes” effort to make this happen has been immense. All of these projects have been funded with help from the government’s Condition Improvement Fund, and the astute use of Academy resources. The Academy Trust Board has supported the Academy’s vision to transform the learning environment for the the staff and students of Churchill, and that transformation over recent years has been significant, with the investment of over £10 million in the Academy site since 2016. From the writing and preparation of bids, through managing the projects and working with contractors to ensure the works were completed safely, on time and to a high standard, countless hours of staff time have gone in to the project. The results are definitely worth it!

The Maths Challenge

Guest post by Mr Thomas, Maths teacher

One of the most rewarding parts of my job as a maths teacher is watching students prepare for and participate in the various Maths Challenges that take place throughout the academic year.

At Churchill Academy & Sixth Form, there is a proud and long-standing tradition of entering students to sit these extra-curricular mathematics competitions, and participation numbers are on the up!

Having coordinated the Maths Challenge competitions at Churchill for the last two years, I felt it was time to write this blog. Why? Mainly – to celebrate the successes of our fantastic mathematicians, but also to share the Maths Challenge experience with students who may not have competed in one (yet), as well as parents, carers, grandparents and other members of the Academy community…. there’s even a chance for you to put your maths skills to the test with some questions from the latest Maths Challenges.

So, what is a Maths Challenge?

Each year, we enter students to sit the UKMT Mathematics Challenges. The UKMT (United Kingdom Mathematics Trust) is a national charitable organisation that was founded in 1996. Their headline aim is to “to advance the education of young people in mathematics” by organising and promoting enrichment events involving problem solving and team work. Papers are completed with no calculator, no measuring equipment – just a pencil, some paper and 5 possible answers to choose from.

There is no doubt that the Maths Challenges are aimed at high-attaining mathematicians – the competitions are designed to stretch the most able mathematicians across the country. But in our opinion – a good work ethic, willingness to take on a challenge and a positive bond with mathematics are equally important attributes.

There are 3 main Maths Challenges throughout an academic year are:

  • Senior Maths Challenge (SMC) – aimed at Sixth Formers and selected high attaining students in Years 10 and 11.
  • Intermediate Maths Challenge (IMC) – aimed at students in Years 9, 10 and 11.
  • Junior Maths Challenge (JMC) – aimed at students in Years 7 and 8.


As I have already mentioned, one of the most satisfying parts of my jobs is seeing the sheer number of students putting themselves forward to take part in these optional competitions, which are designed to challenge them on problem solving mathematics that is often far beyond the scope of their studies within lessons in school.

So far this year, students have taken part in the senior and intermediate challenges in November and February, respectively. I am proud to say that we have had more participants in these two competitions than ever before, with 178 entries across both challenges. This is purely down to our current cohort of students showing huge levels of determination and perseverance, and these stats are a credit to them!

The Junior Maths Challenge takes place later this year on 27th and 28th of April.

How do the results work?

In each Maths Challenge, students are competing to obtain a Gold, Silver or Bronze certificate.

It is worth stressing that at Churchill, we are not solely focussed on ‘who did the best’ – it is an achievement in itself to take part. In our eyes, a successful challenge is one where a group of determined and enthusiastic students push themselves with some challenging mathematics. We were thrilled this year when students outside of our top sets put themselves forward to take part in the IMC. Two-thirds of the students who took part from Miss Morris and Miss Piper’s set 2 classes went on to achieve a certificate – a fantastic feat, and proof that maths challenges at Churchill Academy are not solely for our top set students.

In our eyes, a successful challenge is one where a group of determined and enthusiastic students push themselves with some challenging mathematics.

In the most recent competition (the Intermediate Maths Challenge) 74% of students that participated scored high enough to receive a gold, silver or bronze certificate – another record-breaking figure for Churchill students in this event! When you consider that the national ‘certificate rate’ is 50%, you can see why we as a Maths Department are so impressed with our students and so keen to celebrate their outstanding results.

On Tuesday 15th March, students met for an assembly where I was able to share some of these statistics with them. Students received their gold, silver and bronze certificates from Mr Hildrew and had their photos taken, as you can see.

What happens after a Maths Challenge?

For students that perform exceptionally well, follow-on rounds await. Several thousand students across the UK are invited by the UKMT to sit the ‘Kangaroo’ paper, following each of the three challenges during the year. Invitations and the paper sat depends on each students’ year group.

At Churchill, 11 pupils qualified for this year’s Kangaroo paper following the IMC. You guessed it – another Churchill record!

Going one better is Bruce Butson, a Year 11 student who has qualified for an Olympiad follow-on round – the UKMT’s most prestigious challenge. Bruce is one of only around 600 pupils across the country to have qualified this year, based on his outstanding score in the IMC.

Bruce has agreed to share his thoughts and experiences of sitting various maths challenges during his five years at Churchill:

I have really enjoyed participating in the maths challenge each year. The challenge gives you the opportunity to push yourself and build upon your classroom learning, in a different style to traditional exams. The problem solving aspect means you have to apply yourself to each question and really focus when you get to the later questions. Having done this each year and competed in all of the different challenges (junior, intermediate and senior), I have always been able to find some interest and entertainment whether that be through the added difficulty or new understanding to answer tough questions I couldn’t answer before. In addition to this, I was able to see how I did against the rest of the country which was really motivating.

How would you get on?

Each Maths Challenge consists of 25 questions. Multiply that by 3 and that means 75 different questions across the Senior, Intermediate and Junior competitions in one academic year (no surprise that the maths involved in each competition is slightly trickier!). I have chosen 5 of them.  

Take a look at the questions below and see if you can work out the correct answer (remember – pen and pencil only!). Just a reminder that the JMC is aimed at 11-13 year olds, the IMC aimed at 13-16 year olds and SMC sat by students aged 15-18.

Maths challenge try-at-home questions

At the bottom of the blog, you will find the solutions, along with an explanation as to why each particular answer is correct. No peeking!

If you’ve got this far, hopefully you now know a little more about the Maths Challenges at Churchill than you did at the beginning of this post. You have seen our fantastic gold, silver and bronze mathematicians, you have heard from one of our best also had a little taste as to what it is like to sit a Maths Challenge yourself.

This is completely optional, but we would love to know how you did on the five questions above. If you’re happy to tell us how many you got correct, please fill in an extremely short questionnaire by clicking here (you can do this anonymously if you like!).

If you ever have any queries about the Maths Challenges sat here at Churchill Academy & Sixth Form, please feel free to get in touch. We hope these upward trends continue over the months and years to come!

Mr Thomas (DAT@churchill-academy.org)

Maths Challenge try-at-home solutions

When students lead

One of the central planks of our long term plan at Churchill is to “develop leadership which helps create the leaders of the future.” We know that students benefit from developing their leadership skills, both in terms of their confidence and character, their success in learning, and their long-term prospects. This is why we have been working hard since 2020 to improve and enhance our student leadership programme, to give students the opportunity to lead within and beyond the classroom.

This past week it has been evident just how successful these innovations have become. Since half term, I have seen:

  • Students leading house assemblies to launch the whole-school sustainability competition
  • The student-led inclusion and diversity group making a presentation to the Academy Trust Board on their priorities for tackling micro-aggressions by improving education and understanding of diversity and the power of language
  • Student ambassadors giving tours of the Academy to candidates for jobs at Churchill, and students applying from other schools to join our Sixth Form
  • A student panel from Years 7 to 11 interviewing candidates for Deputy Headteacher at the Academy, and providing insightful and perceptive feedback which helped the selection committee make a decision about the successful candidate
  • Sixth Form leaders assisting with the setup and organisation of Wednesday’s Careers Convention
  • The Green Team offering Duke of Edinburgh volunteering placements as part of their environmental initiatives
  • The Student Receptionist programme offering Year 8 students the opportunity to build responsibility, initiative and confidence during their day’s experience
  • Students leading learning through presentations and peer assessment and feedback
  • Performing Arts Captains leading rehearsals and performances in music, dance and drama
  • Students showing leadership on the sports fields and courts, as captains and competitors
  • The Sixth Form Council proposing an integrated fundraising programme to support the whole-school non-uniform day on 18th March

And this is just what I have seen, and just in the past two weeks!

We know that every student can demonstrate leadership skills, and It feels like the programme has taken root and is flourishing. They are also logging their evidence on the Unifrog system, so that they can track their skills over time and use them when preparing CVs and working towards careers over the coming years. The leaders of the future are right here in our student community – and the future is bright.

Thinking about Ukraine

Before we returned to school on Monday after the half term break, we planned and wrote the following statement:

Academy Statement on the war in Ukraine

We are all horrified by the suffering of innocent people in Ukraine. The invasion of Ukraine was ordered by Vladimir Putin, and is his responsibility – it is not the responsibility of the Russian people. The situation is incredibly serious; it is a time for compassion and togetherness in support of peace and our shared humanity. We expect all our students to listen, learn and do their best to understand what is happening in Ukraine, and to be sensitive to members of our Academy community who may be affected by events there. Above all things: be kind.

This statement was in our student Daily Notices on Monday morning and has remained in place throughout this week. We also provided all staff with video and text “explainers” so they could answer students’ questions about the conflict. Our intention is to support all students in our Academy community to understand the conflict and draw sensible, mature conclusions based on factual information. Staff at Churchill worked hard with our students to emphasise our shared humanity and the will for peace.

Our Academy includes students from all over the world. Some of our students have family members in Ukraine, trying to find safety; others have family members in neighbouring countries such as Hungary, Romania, or Poland, which are welcoming refugees. Several have families in Russia. All of our students need the support, understanding and kindness of the Academy community at this time, and beyond, as we all look on in horror at the suffering of innocent people in the face of violence and destruction.

We will continue to provide that support, and to work with our students to try to understand what is happening in Ukraine, and why, in the hope that the world that they live in as adults will be a world of peace.

Newsround links:

Rock of Ages

There are many, many privileges in being a Headteacher, but one of the unparalleled joys of the role is seeing your students absolutely smash it out of the park. I’ve seen it on the sports field, I see it in classrooms, I see it in exam results; this week, I saw it as the casts of Rock of Ages melted the faces of enthusiastic audiences from the stage of the Playhouse in Weston-super-Mare.

The musical – which ran in its original version for 2,328 performances on Broadway – is set in the Los Angeles rock scene of the 1980s. Big hair, big egos and rock’n’roll excess are the order of the day, as aspiring rock star Drew (Brett Kelly/Matt Lucas) and wannabe actress Sherrie (Ivana Eamesova/Nina Campbell) try to make it big. Along the way they are variously helped and hindered by the big characters of LA’s Sunset Strip, against a backdrop of a threat to the Strip’s very existence from the wrecking ball of arch efficiency-enthusiast Hilda (Emma Cekaj/Maddie Pole). The whole affair is punctuated by songs from the classic hair-metal bands of the period – Bon Jovi, Whitesnake, Journey and more.

These are some big songs, with big tunes and big notes, which need big performances – and the students delivered. In fact, such is the talent on display that the show had two casts, each as fantastic as the other. Each performance also featured two bands – one on-stage, and one in the orchestra pit – and those bands were different each night as well! They were note perfect, nailing every riff and solo in perfect synchronisation with the on-stage action.

The main cast were simply amazing, but what made the show for me was the strength in depth. The dancers, chorus, and hilarious cameo performances had the audience in raptures. The costumes, make-up and hair (there was some REALLY big hair!) were all amazing, and the behind-the-scenes crew ran the production like a well-oiled machine – sound, lighting, props and set were all exemplary.

One of our priorities over the past few years has been developing leadership skills in our students. Well, here it was: students selling programmes, students directing scenes, students running the bands, running the backstage, running the show. Students working with one another across years, across houses, across friendship groups, supporting one another in a massive team effort. It was no surprise that the other cast was packing the back row of the balcony to cheer on those on stage when they were “off” – that is the spirit which this production has created, and it ran through the theatre like electricity.

I did have a word with Mr Buckley, Director of Performing Arts and this production, about the propensity for his shows to coincide with major incidents. You may recall that Singin’ in the Rain was almost derailed by the Beast from the East snowstorm in 2018; Sweeney Todd went on stage in 2020 just before we were all locked down by the pandemic; and this year’s show coincided with Storm Eunice bringing a red weather warning and winds of over 90mph. Mr Buckley reminded me that correlation is not causation, and that the third Academy value is determination, and that I should take Journey’s advice – “don’t stop believing.” Quite right – the show must go on!

And go on it did – a thrilling, professional-standard performance, sizzling with energy and joy and the release of being on stage in a packed theatre again. I could not be prouder of everyone involved.

Talking about mental health

This week, 7th to 13th February, is Children’s Mental Health Week. The theme this year is “growing together,” as we are all encouraged to think about how we have grown and how we can help others to grow.

When I was at school, mental health was not discussed at all. As I have grown, it has moved out from the shadows and we now live in a society which is much more open and accepting to discussions about mental health and mental wellbeing. My own learning and understanding has also grown over this time, especially as the subject is so important for all educators to understand. Mental health, after all, has a direct impact on learning.

Natasha Devon (source)

One of the “lightbulb moments” for me in understanding mental health and wellbeing was when I listened to Natasha Devon, a well-known mental health campaigner, talking about the subject on the Are You Convinced? podcast. On the podcast, she invited listeners to think about mental health in three steps, by drawing the equivalent to our physical health.

Keeping healthy

In the first step, she talked about proactive or preventative steps that we take to keep ourselves physically healthy. This might include eating healthily, getting plenty of rest, avoiding alcohol and smoking, and taking taking regular exercise. What similar steps might we take to ensure that we keep ourselves mentally healthy?

Reflecting on this, I was able to think of a few things that would help me. For example, I might limit my intake of social media or cut out things that I know are likely to cause me stress. I might ensure I am talking to my friends and family, sharing any worries or concerns – and making sure that I am a listening ear for them too. Getting plenty of rest, avoiding alcohol and smoking, and taking regular exercise are just as good for mental health as they are for physical health. And I monitor my physical health regularly, so I know when I need to exercise more, or get more sleep – the same is true of keeping myself mentally healthy.

Everyday health issues

Natasha Devon went on to say that we all experience everyday issues with our physical health. We all get cuts and scrapes, colds and headaches, bangs and bruises in our everyday life. We are able to manage them ourselves, and we wouldn’t seek a doctor’s advice unless it was chronic, serious or stopped us from doing our everyday activities for more than a couple of days. But we might seek advice from the NHS website, or a pharmacist. We might put a plaster on, or take a paracetamol, until we had recovered.

Devon says that the same is true of our mental health. Worries, fears, everyday stresses and anxieties, feeling sad or unhappy – these happen to all of us. It isn’t pleasant, and it might knock us back, and we might sometimes need a little help to be able to cope. The mental health “plaster” or “paracetamol” might be talking it through with friends or family, perhaps speaking to your tutor, teacher or a trusted adult, or turning to online resources or apps for help. There are a range of these available:

Serious Health Issues

Finally, Natasha Devon argued, some of us experience serious physical health issues. These are relatively rare, but serious. With our physical health, she talked about chronic conditions, serious illnesses, infections, broken bones – the sorts of things that have a significant impact on our daily lives for a long period of time, that we may be hospitalised for, and that we need professional help to deal with. In some cases, these problems can be “fixed” and we will get better and back to normal. In other cases, they can be treated, but we will need to learn to live with them as part of our lives, and cope with the impact that they have on our daily activities.

The same is true of mental health. Some of us, at some point, will suffer with mental health issues that are chronic and completely debilitating. In these situations we may be hospitalised, or we may be unable to carry on our daily activities. In these cases, we cannot recover without professional help. We would not try and fix a broken leg ourselves: the same is true when we are “broken” mentally.

The role of the school

I found Natasha Devon’s characterisation of mental health, as equivalent to physical health, really helpful. We all have mental health, just as we have physical health. It can fluctuate on a daily basis; on some days we feel better than others. Aches and pains and ups and downs are part of normal life. We don’t ignore them; we respond and take actions to help ourselves feel better. If things get really serious, we seek professional help from a doctor.

Just like with physical health, the school has a key role in keeping our students healthy. We educate our students about their physical health through our curriculum – the importance of a good diet and exercise, how to look after ourselves – and we do the same with mental health. When students experience a bump or a scrape or a bruise – mental or physical – we can help to a certain extent, and signpost information to assist, but usually if it’s serious we will suggest referring to a doctor. Our school is not a hospital; our expertise is education, not medicine. We wouldn’t try to set a broken limb in a science lab: the chances of us getting it wrong and making it worse are quite high. So we rely on experts in the health services to take over.

What we can do is listen to the experts. We have plans in place to support students with serious, chronic or significant physical and mental health needs, so those students are able to access education alongside their peers. We can help them when things are difficult, and we can work together to find ways to overcome challenges.

And, above all, we can make it clear to our students that they need to look after their mental health just as much as they look after their physical health. They need to talk to their families, their friends, Academy staff and, if necessary, professional experts to make sure they are able to keep learning successfully.

I’m pleased we’re talking openly about mental health nowadays. I think it’s better for everyone.

The principles of public life

Accompanying the documents I signed in January 2016, as I became Headteacher of the Academy, was a copy of The Seven Principles of Public Life, sometimes known as the Nolan Principles. The principles:

“apply to anyone who works as a public office-holder. This includes all those who are elected or appointed to public office, nationally and locally, and all people appointed to work in the Civil Service, local government, the police, courts and probation services, non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs), and in the health, education, social and care services. All public office-holders are both servants of the public and stewards of public resources.”

From The Seven Principles of Public Life, published 31st May 1995.

As a Headteacher, I am a public office-holder. I am a servant of the public, and a steward of public resources. I signed those principles, and I remember them. I take them very seriously and do everything I can to uphold them in every aspect of my work, and the work of the wider Academy. The principles are:

  1. Selflessness: Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest.
  2. Integrity: Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.
  3. Objectivity: Holders of public office must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.
  4. Accountability: Holders of public office are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.
  5. Openness: Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.
  6. Honesty: Holders of public office should be truthful.
  7. Leadership: Holders of public office should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour and treat others with respect. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs

I find these principles inspiring and helpful. They genuinely guide my work. I know that upholding them will give people faith in me as a leader. Their widespread adoption gives people faith in the wider public services, because there are good people working there, behaving ethically, honestly, openly, selflessly, and conducting themselves with integrity. If ever I fall short, I work hard to put it right.

If public servants are dishonest; if they are selfish; if they are biased; if they dodge or avoid the scrutiny and accountability that they should submit themselves to; if they conceal the truth, our faith in them is shaken. And not just in them: failure to adhere to the seven principles of public life undermines our faith in the wider system, not just in the individuals who fall short.

That is why I take the principles so seriously, and do all I can to demonstrate selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership in all that I do. And I would expect all servants of the public to do the same.