08: Tackling the mental health and well-being of young people


11th May 2022

08: Tackling the mental health and well-being of young people

We talk to Simon Antwis from Steer Education (former headteacher and schools inspector) about how technology can help find those children in school suffering from mental health and offer support. We look at how technology has helped transform schools' data unity and pastoral care. We also touch on the struggles of children who hide their feelings by 'gaming the system' and how to reach them, with why girls' mental health is of particular concern. And finally, what teachers can do about the growing divide between girls' and boys' social and emotional well-being.

We want to reverse this awful decline in mental health and well-being in young people." Simon Antwis, Steer Education 2022

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08: Tackling the mental health and well-being of young people


James Marriott: Welcome to the Primary Knowledge Podcast brought to you by Cornerstones Education. I’m James Marriott and today we’re tackling a really super important issue: the mental health and wellbeing of young people. Now I’m joined today by Simon Antwis, who is senior education consultant at Steer Education, a platform designed to help schools and teachers to measure, track and improve the self-regulation and mental wellbeing of young people. Simon, thank you for joining us.

Simon Antwis: No problem. It’s a pleasure.

James: First of all, let’s talk about technology now. I kind of tried there to give an idea of what Steer Education is all about. And I’m sure you can do that much better than I can. But just give us a bit of a wider overview, if you would do, about the role that technology can play in the mental health of young people.

Simon: Well, in a past life, I was an inspector, and when we used to inspect schools we’d obviously give the children a questionnaire. And I’m sure all good heads and leaders out there are given their children questionnaires as well. And what I felt the questionnaire didn’t achieve was to get really into the minds of young people about what they’re really feeling. I mean, the opening question is, do you feel safe? And obviously, that is a different beast to different children. And some children don’t want to answer that question and some children aren’t able to answer that question. So, I felt that there needed to be a much more sophisticated solution to identify how children were really feeling and thinking. And tech played a huge part in that for Steer Education because our platform, our assessment tool, is delivered using tech and the algorithms within that tool measure the responses that children make and the time gaps between them, and it can identify children that are gaming the system, if you like, and just answering the same question each time. So yeah, it’s been pivotal in the success of our tool in over 200 schools that we use it in, to identify precisely what children are thinking and not what they might answer on a very binary survey.

James: Just kind of break it down a little bit more for us if you would do that. So where does the tech kind of fit in? So, if you think about, I mean, when I think about when I was at school, I’m not sure that there was even a questionnaire about stuff like mental wellbeing. But, you know, we’re going back a bit! But when you think about a questionnaire being, kind of, a couple of pieces of paper put in front of someone many, many years ago, what difference does technology make? How does that work then, how is it now delivered that makes that better?

Simon: So, the children are able to sit the assessment, which is only 10 minutes long or 15 minutes, if you decide to do that sort of double assessment, which measures their feelings in school and out of school, and they can do that on a desktop or an iPad. And in fact, some of our other products can be delivered using mobile phones. So, we have a product called USTEER, which is designed for post 16, where children are more able to handle the data that’s being sent back to them and design their own pathway. So, I suppose it makes it really accessible, as you mentioned, it doesn’t involve bits of paper. And what’s the amazing thing about it is the data is instantly analysed and is available to the school within minutes, so there’s no need… When I was vice principal 100 years ago, I’d have to collect all these questionnaires in, and count the answers, as you say on paper, and you’ve lost the moment a little bit. So, with some schools we offer an opportunity to try before they buy, and they’ll pick a cohort, maybe 50 to 100 pupils, and we can do all that in an hour. So, you take the pupils to the right setting and the right conditions. Also, what the tech allows is for the data to be gathered in a coordinated and valid way, because we’ve been collecting data for over seven, eight years now and we’ve been really careful that we collect it in a really scientific way.

Simon: And it’s done in the same way in all the schools so that the data can be used to produce national reports that we release in February, for example, or data that we return to the government or to identify trends to share with others. Which is really our raison d’etre, we want to reverse this awful decline in mental health and wellbeing and young people. And that’s our primary mission. So, the tech has been pivotal. And also, the way we ask the questions, you know, it’s done through animations, and it’s delivered through voice and the platform is very child friendly and it adapts from the age of eight. So, this assessment tool is suitable for children in year three all the way up to year 13, so you can get a longitudinal set of data for a child that lasts ten years. And when they leave school, they get to own the data. So, they can understand what was done for them during their school journey and what they might like to adopt themselves as young adults. And I don’t think you could ever do that with paper and a bundle of paper to a child at year 13, particularly if they’ve changed schools or changed settings.

James: I think I think you’ve touched a couple of things in there that sort of slightly answer this, but I’m just trying to think from a school’s perspective then how does this fit in? You know, what difference ultimately can technology play when we talk about pastoral care?

Simon: Well, I was a head a few times over, lucky enough to be a head a couple of times. And it’s a very daunting job and, hats off to anyone who does it, I won’t do want to discourage anyone doing it, but you constantly are worried about missing a child, that something awful manifests itself in your school setting, and you have any sense that you didn’t do as much as you could have done to identify that. I knew from being a head and an inspector and vice principal in charge of pastoral care that children don’t overtly let you know what’s going on in their lives. There are indicators and pastoral staff are very skilled at picking these up, whether it’s attendance or behaviour or appearance or manner, all the other professional judgements and instincts. We’re not asking staff to abandon those; we’re trying to support them and affirm them and augment them. And also, the deep knowledge schools have about the context of that child, what’s going on at home, what’s happened to that child’s life, you know, whether that child has had trauma that we need to identify. But often young people are quite skilful, whether intentionally or not, at masking what’s going on in their lives, for whatever reason. And when I got my first set of data back as a user of STEER tracking, as a head teacher, we had 27 pupils identified to us.

Simon: So, these are pupils you might want to consider putting action plans in place or intervening early so that they don’t end up manifesting this in self-soothing strategies, self-harm or God forbid, any worse. And you know, a good proportion of those, my staff had spotted already through their own strategies, and it was a great affirmative meeting, but there were a couple of students on there that I think all of us raised our eyebrows at. You know, I’ll call it this scale, Jane. But there was a girl called Jane who was straight nines and Captain Hockey and head girl material who came up as a priority pupil. And I think my staff in the room, I think they looked at me and I knew they were thinking “What’s Simon brought this thing in for? It’s a load of rubbish.” And I sort of looked at my shoes as well and tried to style it out a little bit. Anyway, then we moved on. But a couple of weeks later, Jane just walked off the school site, to our astonishment. And it wasn’t the sort of school where students walked off school. It had its issues, but that wasn’t one of the things that happened. And she was found at home and the deputy found her and realised that she was the sole carer for her siblings. Her parents had got ill and had to return back to another country and the mother had gone to nurse the father, and she’d been left in charge.

Simon: But because she was so bright and socially skilful, she managed to mask it all. So, I think, you know, my team then felt this tool was providing something that we didn’t have before and that any pastoral carer worth their salt is open to any ideas that help them support every single child that needs support and intervention. So that was my motivation. I always felt I had a dashboard for the school on the academic side that had lots of bells and whistles and pie charts, you know, and I could pinpoint things that we could address and areas for development, that things were doing really well and collaboration and things like that, and it was very impactful. On the pastoral side of the school, I felt it was a very thin dashboard, if any. It was attendance, bespoke behavioural data, and instinct, and lots of soft data. And for the first time with STEER tracking, I felt that I had something that’s much more granular, much more insightful, much more pointed. You know, for example, we knew that year nine girls had low trust of self as a cohort. So, they weren’t piping up in class and they weren’t putting themselves forward.

Simon: They weren’t expressing their voice. So, I test this quite a lot as an inspector when I’m told that the pupil voice is outstanding. And I think, okay, all schools hand out questionnaires, but are we getting really deep into pupil voice, the voice we don’t hear? So that was where I felt I needed support on that. And I think, you know, as you said, technology played a huge part in that, and it makes it quick and easy and painless. The least attention you can draw to the process the better, because we don’t want what’s called the priming effect. We don’t want people thinking, “oh, there’s been a questionnaire, we all better behave,” or “there’s a questionnaire, I better be even quieter, I better disclose even less because I don’t want to draw attention to myself.” So that’s what I felt it was. It was a way to circumnavigate what we call a child’s front stage. So as human beings, we all have a front stage, don’t we? We always present our best, and we reveal our backstage to varying degrees to different audiences. But, you know, with children, they’re less able to reveal their backstage in comfort as adults are. So, this tech allowed us to get around that front stage into the backstage to find out what was really going on in that child’s mind.

James: That’s great. And that’s a really brilliant example actually there that you’ve used with regards to Jane. I’ll probably ask you later actually if there’s any other examples that are worth bringing up. What about, and I hope I’m not misquoting you here, but you used the phrase right at the start of this where you talked about kind of the old system of questionnaires and those pupils who were kind of cheating the system when it comes to answering those things. What do you do about someone who’s got something going off and they just don’t want to talk about it? They want to hide it. They will actively try to hide it. They’re just, maybe they’re just not ready, or they’re not comfortable or for whatever reason, they do not want anyone to know about it. What can you do in that situation?

Simon: Yeah, I prefer to call it gaming the system.

James: I think that’s what you said. Gaming the system. I did misquote you. I apologise.

Simon: That’s alright, not at all. But I just want to be fair to children because, you know, they find this difficult, and I think most adults would if you had a questionnaire shoved in front of you and asked how you felt. The tool is very good at identifying children who are gaming the system or answering questions too quickly or putting A every time. We have a seven-point scale, a Likert scale, from definitely would to definitely wouldn’t and various iterations of that depending on the age. So, the tool can quickly identify, and it will ping it up as the child’s doing the assessment. Now that’s an indicator in itself, the child’s not engaging, and you know, and it’s a signpost that school. I’m not saying the tool tells you where the child’s not revealing what they’re saying, but what I’m telling you is that the child is masking something and then it’s up to great pastoral care, and the action planning kit you get with the tool, to try and tease that out of the child in a subtle, sensitive, time sensitive manner. It’s not going to say, “this child’s got self harming risks,” but it teases out a child’s ability to self regulate. You know, I’m a father of three and all I wanted for my children is that when they finally flee the nest, which they’ve about done, that they will make great decisions when I’m not there, whatever that may be, you know, and they’re able to self regulate.

Simon: And the reason we call it STEER is because the analogy is that children are driving a car along the road of life and all we want them to be able to do is be able to navigate it. And, you know, different contexts and different situations with different people require different responses and different behaviours. So that’s what we mean by self regulation. You know, the ability to say and do and act the right thing at the right time, in the right context. And we can split that out into four areas. Trust of self. Are they overly trusting themselves or do they completely not trust themselves? Those are the two extremes. Trust of others. Do they overly trust others, listen to everything that they’re told and act on it? Or do they not listen to anyone else at all? With all the sliding scales in between. Are they high self disclosing, they tell you everything, overshare? Or are they low self disclosing, do they under share? And then there’s seeking change. Are they constantly wanting to change their lives because they’re not happy? Or are they fixated and don’t want to change anything? And they’re measured on those four scales. So, it’s very granular, you know, and some of the combinations tell you something.

Simon: So, you know, if you’re high trust of self and low trust of others, you know, that’s sort of, you know, dictatorial behaviour. Everything I know, I believe to be right, anything anyone else knows I believe to be wrong. And those combinations can tell you a thing about trust. So, we have what I call composite risks, and they’re indicators of what path that child is going down. So, when you get the tool, you know, you’ll get lots of consultant support for the first three years from launch to implementation to embedding to accreditation. But what I achieved with this tool in two schools was, I had everyone taking responsibility for pastoral care. And by that, I mean maths teachers, geography teachers… Where I would arrive at school sometimes and they would say “well, that’s, that’s not my job, that’s someone else’s job.” And I’d say “actually, you’re wrong because year nine girls have got low trust of self, so we need to change the way we teach them. So, the way you deliver your lessons will have an impact on the way they feel. So, you are a pastoral carer, through the way you teach maths.” And equally I’d tell pastoral carers “You are having an impact on academic outcomes because you’re identifying what that group of children aren’t doing.”

Simon: You’re asking maths teachers to change their pedagogy, which means there are outcomes that improve. So, the dream for any headteacher is, is to go from where you’ve got two halves of the school butting against each other, pastoral carers and the academic staff as self proclaimed, to a situation where all individuals in the school, and I mean all, not just the teaching staff, the non-teaching staff as well, are all taking their tiny bit of responsibility for the pastoral care of the children in the way they deliver everything. Whether it’s the way they deliver food, or the way the grass is cut, the way maths is delivered, as well as identifying all the conventional things that we use to spot if children or things aren’t right. And then that’s where the skill of the pastoral staff and all the staff kicks in after that. They can come up with where they think this is leading. And then you’ve now got a child that you’re monitoring much more subtly because the child won’t know that there’s an action plan. We don’t share that with them until the right age, to the year 11 and above. So, that’s a long answer to your question, but I think that that’s the way a school wants to deliver its pastoral care.

James: This might be a simple question. It might not. So, you mentioned year nine girls a couple of times as we’ve as we’ve gone along. We know from the research that’s out there that there seems to be a kind of a growing divide about girls and boys in terms of social and emotional wellbeing. How does this work in those senses? You know, essentially, I suppose the question is whether or not, does this work differently for boys and for girls to take that stuff into account?

Simon: Well, we produced a national report in February, which was published in all the main broadsheets and was featured on television, and we shared it widely. And that report indicates that all children, their ability to self-regulate, has dropped. We think we’re the only organisation that’s got longitudinal data over the five-six year period, pre-pandemic, during the pandemic, up to the end of last year, and for a significant number of children, 15,000 children in multiple schools. And we’re seeing that all children’s ability to self-regulate has dropped by a quarter, a huge amount. But there is a significant difference between the way the girls have reacted to the pandemic and boys. Now, I appreciate that it is a trend, a national trend, and it is scientific data, and the situation might be different in your school, in your context. But what it’s saying is that a girl’s ability to self-regulate has dropped by a third, 33%, and a boy’s has dropped by 15%. So, there’s a significant difference between the way the girls have reacted and responded during the pandemic than boys have.

James: Okay. That’s interesting. You mentioned earlier about Jane. Are there any other examples that you kind of want to drop in at this point?

Simon: Well, more to do with cohorts. You know, we’ve noticed that with year six, there are significant mental health and wellbeing issues as they approach transition. So that’s something that the data identified in multiple schools and sometimes more significantly in boys because, without wishing to be too stereotypical, boys are the most comfortable where they know what’s coming up, when they can predict the future and know who’s in charge and what goes where, and they find transition, you know, a significant issue. So, it’s been very useful for schools to identify that and address how they handle transition and what they do to support the pupils. So that’s a good general example of what we’re seeing across schools.

James: Okay, brilliant. Well, Simon, thank you very much for joining us. I do find this a really fascinating subject area. It’s been really good to chat and find out more about what you guys are up to.

Simon: Thank you. Thanks for the opportunity for sharing it, and good luck to all those pastoral carers out there and all the heads because I know handling the pandemic has been a monster task. And hats off to all of them.

James: Absolutely. Thank you, Simon. Now, I hope you’ve enjoyed listening to today’s episode. It doesn’t end here because as ever, we’ve picked out lots of extra things, links and resources, that are all related to today’s discussion. So, if you want to explore and learn a bit more around the topic, head to the show notes for this episode and you’ll find everything there. And of course, there’s lots more information and you can find all our other episodes at cornerstoneseducation.co.uk. Thank you for listening and see you next time.

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