Putting young people at the heart of wellbeing in schools

1 July 2020

We spoke to new Big Change project partners Aaron John and George Metcalfe about their systemic approach to tackling mental health in schools.

Their digital service, Tranquiliti, asks students questions about all aspects of wellbeing and school life, from academics to relationships and exercise. By building an accurate picture of every student, it enables schools to improve wellbeing while providing effective signposting and support for young people wherever they are.

How did you decide you wanted to focus on supporting young people’s mental health?

We’ve both had different experiences with mental health, either on a personal level or through our families and friends. We’ve seen the lack of support or guidance available and the impact that can have. 

Aaron: I had a troubled background that impacted my own mental health and my education. It came to a head during my time at university; luckily my friends were there to support me. I don’t blame the school or university environments I was in – but unfortunately the system wasn’t there to hold me or help me in my time of need.

When I later started a placement in a Pupil Referral Unit it was powerful to see how many young people had been left to their own devices and needed more guidance. It could’ve easily been me.

George: My motivation comes from witnessing family and friends experiencing mental health issues; all without much support from school, university or wider institutions.

When I began working at a school, through the same Year Here placement as Aaron, I saw problems caused by not measuring or accounting for wellbeing. It was getting fantastic results with students from disadvantaged backgrounds, but the ethos was jarring.

Students were incredibly stressed; they felt that the sole focus was on academics, at the expense of their wellbeing.

Why is supporting young people’s mental health so important in these times of crisis?

We’ve known for years that schools have needed more support – both in supporting students in their wellbeing and supporting staff in how to help. 

Last year, more than 80% of school leaders and teachers reported an increase in the number of pupil mental health problems. Data from YoungMinds revealed 83% of young people agree that the pandemic has made their mental health issues worse.

Sadly it’s taken the pandemic to bring this to the fore.

It’s now impossible to ignore the role that education plays in young people’s wellbeing. Wellbeing and academics are two halves of the same educational coin. There are other countries that don’t see it as either one or the other, why do we?

Where did the idea for Tranquiliti come from?

After working in schools or PRUs and seeing how students’ home lives were impacting their mental health, we each went to work for different organisations focused around system thinking. 

We both realised that to address mental health problems, we needed to tackle the root cause, rather than looking at the secondary or tertiary issues that come up as a result.

We wanted to create a solution with young people at the heart. We ran codesign workshops and focus groups with students, teachers and wellbeing experts and identified four key challenges:

  1. Students struggle to understand their own mental wellbeing and to access the support they need
  2. Students feel disempowered, in terms of having a voice in school 
  3. Schools need help supporting the mental wellbeing of students on a wider basis, beyond putting those who have obvious needs on the ‘priority list’
  4. Student wellbeing might be a priority for senior leadership, but they often lack the data to support strategic decisions 

Tell us a bit about how Tranquiliti works

Tranquiliti is a tool to measure, support and improve the wellbeing and life of students at school. It is an extra pair of hands for schools, offering pastoral support to every student.

Firstly, students answer weekly questions on their mental wellbeing and relationship to school. The results are presented back to students, helping them understand their own mental health, and signposting them to relevant resources both in and out of school. 

Secondly, staff are presented with a summary picture of each individual student’s wellbeing, as well as a picture of the year group or school as a whole. These insights can then be used to identify areas that need school-wide support. 

The weekly questions can be used to gather feedback and track effectiveness of any implemented changes, bringing students back into the heart of the process and creating a cycle of continuous improvement. 

Why was it so important to put the youth voice at the heart of your solution? 

We sat down with a lot of young people to understand concerns with their wellbeing and the school environment. We heard time and time again they didn’t feel like they were being listened to. Research shows that feeling valued and part of a community is important to both wellbeing and academic achievement. 

Tranquiliti is all about giving young people the agency to understand what’s going on and choose what support is relevant to them.

Students have been co-creators from the start. We offered work experience placements and supported them to lead focus groups in their schools. We will have student Design Leads in each school who can flag issues, host focus groups with other students and feedback into our process. 

We say to students: it’s not a ‘school tool’ it’s for you, and it’s up to you to take ownership. 

Finally, if you had one ask for the government or for change at a national level, what would it be?

Give schools more money! Schools have been asked to appoint a mental health lead, but there’s no associated budget. 

We also need to help schools move away from seeing academics and wellbeing as separate issues. When everyone talks about ‘results’ we mean ‘academic results’. 

What if we could reframe that conversation so that it includes mental health and academics? What are the results that would show a school has supported students to grow into well-rounded young people?

Big Change is proud to be supporting Tranquiliti through our Emergent Needs and Opportunities Fund. The team are now working with The Children’s Society to personalise signposting and support for young people. Read more about the app at tranquiliti.co or sign up for updates.