“Schools need governors who care about mental health.”

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Hannah Stolton is CEO of Governors for Schools, a charity which finds and places skilled volunteers on governing boards across the country.

Governors for Schools first started thinking about a wellbeing campaign last year, after a survey revealed issues around mental health and wellbeing were on the rise in schools.

Then came 2020 and COVID-19. The pandemic has brought a whole range of new and different pressures on schools.

We’ve been speaking to Hannah Stolton, CEO of Governors For Schools, on why their wellbeing campaign, launched in September, is so important in the current climate and how it’s led to an increase in people wanting to become governors.

Hannah, the campaign is about raising awareness about mental health and wellbeing in schools, is that right?

Yes that’s right, we want to put wellbeing at the heart of boards so that governors are checking in on a school’s policies and procedures around mental health and wellbeing and making sure it’s being talked about at board-level meetings. We want people to be aware it’s critically important.

As a society, we’re getting better at talking about mental health but it can still be hard to know how to talk about it and where to start?

Exactly, so on our website we’ve got a list of questions which governing boards can ask. You don’t have to be a mental health first-aider or someone who’s specially trained. It’s about asking those questions so provision is improved.

It’s a priority for every school at the moment but actually when we first started thinking about it this time last year, it was relevant then. We ran a survey last November which revealed that a lot of schools were already thinking about having a wellbeing governor.

Obviously COVID-19 has just heightened that. Many schools are now saying yes, we need a wellbeing governor – or, if not a particular governor, maybe a committee – but just making sure it’s at the heart of meetings and on the agenda every time. Boards should be routinely checking on staff, leadership and pupil wellbeing. 

It can be hard as a governor as some of the pressures schools face are outside of the board’s control, aren’t they?

Yes you’re right but I think a lot of it is about having those conversations with school leaders and knowing what’s going on. Although we are there as a ‘critical friend’ and to challenge, school leaders really need our support at the moment. If you speak to Headteachers, you come away realising how much they’ve got on their plate right now. Sometimes just being that listening ear and that person school leaders can talk things through with, who’s slightly outside of the situation, can be really helpful.

You said it’s a lot for governors to take on, it’s a time of stress and concern for all of us, isn’t it? Governors can feel the pressure too?

There is that aspect to it, however we have seen an increase in the number of people wanting to become school governors. Clearly people are very keen to support schools. They know about the good work schools are doing and understand how important it is for schools to be supporting the children they serve as best they can. Even though it is a big responsibility, we’re seeing an increased number of people offering to get involved.

That’s really heartening, is it as a result of the wellbeing campaign?

Yes. It’s partly as a result of the wellbeing campaign but also partly as a direct response to COVID-19. We saw an increase in applications in May once people had settled into working from home. People started to think about how they could support their local community – perhaps because they suddenly had more time to give and became more available for meetings.

But also since we launched the wellbeing campaign in September, we’ve seen an increase in people specifically referencing the campaign, saying that they want to support schools in this way and they feel it’s important to give their time to help.

That’s so good to hear. I understand you’ve planned a whole programme across the year for the campaign, is that right?

Yes, in the first term we’re focusing on pupil wellbeing. Many children are returning to school from potentially difficult circumstances having spent many weeks learning at home.

We felt that by Christmas, school staff would be shattered and going into a tough second term, although I know that a lot of teachers are struggling now, so in term two we’re going to focus on staff wellbeing and how we can support staff and leaders. We’ll look at governor wellbeing within that too – how governors can make sure they’re looking after themselves.

Then in the third term we’ll be looking at how activity and physical wellbeing impacts on overall wellbeing. Hopefully by then, sports days will be back and we’ll be able to get outside and focus on how sport and an active lifestyle can positively impact both physical and mental health and wellbeing

….

Governors for Schools has produced a set of resources for governing boards to use to promote staff and pupil wellbeing which you can find here.

The National Governance Association has teamed up with the Schools Advisory Service to produce a wellbeing evaluation tool for governing boards which you can find here.

If you’re interested in recruiting new governors for your board or trust, Governors for Schools or Inspiring Governance can help with this.

Last year we spoke to Neil Roby, a Chair of Governors in Kent, about how volunteering had improved his mental health. You can read about Neil’s journey here.

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