A 'powerful' project which has been providing teachers and schoolchildren with the tools to support their mental health has proved even more important throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
As part of the Oldham Opportunity Area (OA), staff and pupils across the borough have been taking part in a series of workshops and lessons to understand how to deal with emotional and mental health challenges.
The OA was launched in 2017 as one of 12 such initiatives by the government to raise education standards in the country.
Since then it has funded a whole series of projects, including achieving its initial aim of making sure that more than a hundred education settings in Oldham now have a mental health lead and a dedicated plan of support.
Two specially trained supervisors have worked with 48 schools and an academy trust to provide one-to-one supervision to almost 70 school leaders to help them manage the ‘emotional impact’ of their work.
Since lockdown this has also been offered to more schools in recognition of the challenges the pandemic has brought teaching staff.
Lizzie Egan-Walsh (pictured) is the headteacher of Lyndhurst Primary School in Hollins.
She has been taking part in the supervisory sessions and believes they offer invaluable support to teachers, and lead to positive impacts for the whole school.
“Supervision is a vehicle for you to sit and reflect over the challenges and successes you have had,” she explained.
“It’s a professional way of clearing your head to enable you to move forward.
“For me, my supervisor helps me to work through challenging situations I have been dealing with. It’s very, very powerful and is quite a deep process.
“You can imagine at the moment your average school is not just doing what you would normally do; it’s all the Covid safety as well.
“Something might have happened where a child or a parent gets sick, a bubble might have to be sent home, all of the new regulations.
“You’re not just providing the quality of education, you’re also tasked with putting all the safety measures and assessments in place.
“We have over 400 children who we have to make sure wash their hands several times a day.
“You have that pressure of Covid all around you. I have not seen such a level of stress in the profession that we have got at the moment.”
Ms Egan-Walsh added that without the funding through the OA, it would be ‘challenging’ for any school to fund the same level of supervision for staff within their budgets.
However she believes that it has made a ‘real difference’.
“It’s quite innovative in bringing this into schools because traditionally it’s really been done with social work. It’s not the norm, but actually I believe it should be the norm,” she added.
“It doesn’t just support the senior leader, that support goes through to the teachers, and through to the children in the school.
“It’s different to therapy, but it is similar to coaching. It’s a safe space where you can show your vulnerabilities and be supported professionally.
“It’s a way to accept that as well as being a leader you are also a human being, and you don’t have all the right answers all the time.
“I feel really passionate about the impact that it’s had. It’s empowering. It creates strong leaders who are able to show their vulnerabilities.”
The supervisory sessions are delivered by Intraquest CIC, a not for profit learning, well-being and community service provider, based in Oldham.
Part of the OA work has also seen the formation of an emotional, mental health and wellbeing team within the local authority.
Natalie Williams is a mental wellbeing coordinator on the team who works with schools to find people to become senior mental health leads
“It’s really grown over the last few years,” she said.
“When teachers train they aren’t necessarily taught how to meet young people’s needs around wellbeing and understanding mental health. So teachers have really valued the training we’ve been doing.
“It creates more understanding and tolerance. You remember the teachers at school who understood and supported you, and you do better in school because of them.”
But it’s not just teachers who are given the tools to deal with mental health. They are also aiming to give children the skills themselves from an early age.
Secondary school aged pupils are now being taught how to understand cognitive behaviour, how they think and what makes them react in certain ways.
For younger children, workshops are mainly story led, and explore issues the youngsters might encounter such as a friend choosing to play with someone else, Ms Williams explained.
Methods such as breathing techniques are explained to cope with bouts of anxiety.
“Proactive and early intervention prevents children escalating into crisis so we want children to have the skills themselves to be able to cope,” she added.
“The feedback we get is brilliant, everyone agrees the work is so important and we’ve seen it make a difference in schools in Oldham.”