Rolling out mental health trials in schools

Anna Moore and Dr Daniel Hayes, researchers at the Evidence Based Practice Unit (UCL and Anna Freud Centre), discuss their leading research into mental health and wellbeing in schools.

As recently announced by the education secretary Damian Hinds, thousands of children and young people are taking part in our randomised control trials evaluating different mental health and wellbeing interventions in schools. The latest NHS digital prevalence survey suggested that emotional difficulties in young people are on the rise, and one in eight five- to 19-year-olds have at least one mental health difficulty. These figures highlight the need for action – the Department for Education is funding us to deliver the Education for Wellbeing programme, one of the largest studies in the world of its kind.

The Anna Freud Centre is committed to building the evidence base for mental health in schools, and the Education for Wellbeing programme forms part of the centre’s extensive work with schools across England. It provides resources and support for pupils, teachers and parents, and through its research contributes to evidence-based practice, informing policy at a local and governmental level.

Led by the Evidence Based Practice Unit (EBPU) (UCL and Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families), over 370 schools and around 30,000 pupils across England will take part in the drive to produce robust evidence about what works best for pupils’ mental health and wellbeing.

The Education for Wellbeing programme consists of two separate trials: AWARE and INSPIRE. Both explore the impact of different mental health and wellbeing approaches in school, in recognition of the significant time children spend at school and the important role that school staff can play in recognising changes in pupils’ behaviour or mood.

AWARE (150 secondary schools) aims to implement and evaluate two interventions with Year 9 pupils. Both interventions focus on improving pupil’s knowledge and awareness around mental health, reducing stigma, and encouraging help-seeking.

  • Youth Aware of Mental Health (YAM) is delivered in schools by external mental health professionals. It is a structured programme of five sessions involving group discussions and role plays.
  • The guide aims to increase mental health literacy in pupils and staff and consists of six sessions delivered by trained teachers.

INSPIRE (160 primary and 70 secondary schools) investigates three interventions aimed at improving pupils’ wellbeing. Schools are working with Years 4, 5, 7 and 8 to evaluate approaches delivered by trained school staff:

  • Mindfulness is delivered for five minutes each day and consists of mindful breathing exercises and other activities focused on self-awareness of sensations, emotions, and thoughts.
  • Relaxation is also delivered to classes for five minutes every day and involves deep breathing and muscle relaxation exercises.
  • Strategies for Safety and Wellbeing draws on emerging practice in some UK schools around teaching practical approaches to personal safety (protective behaviours). It consists of eight 45-minute sessions in which pupils explore the themes of risk, noticing early warning signs, and recognising the importance of support networks.

The evaluation team at EBPU are using survey data, focus groups, and interviews to examine the impact and experiences of these interventions on pupils and staff when compared to usual practice. This research has the potential to transform mental health promotion in schools, giving teachers and other school staff the confidence to promote pupil wellbeing and support the children and young people they work with.

We are delighted to have received great feedback from schools involved. One young person said: “…if it was to be all around the country, it will help other schools as well. It will raise awareness about what’s going on and I think it will help… It will make the country a better place I think, to be very honest.

A class teacher said: “I feel empowered by it, you know? I feel like these subjects are not talked about enough.”


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