Learning by heart: wellbeing in education

No matter the cause of the pupil’s upset, the panacea was near-universal: run along and sit outside the secretary’s office until you’ve calmed down. The lucky ones might be offered a Polo mint. In higher education, even in institutions boasting populations the size of small towns, the only really visible offer of pastoral support would come from a well-meaning welfare officer juggling the role with their own studies.

Such was the common approach to wellbeing in education at the back end of the last century. Today, of course, the majority of educational establishments take the issue far more seriously, with comprehensive policies and – sometimes – resources to match. But is it enough? Since 2010, says evidence from the Care Quality Commission, the number of children visiting A&E for mental health treatment has more than doubled. On September 24, BBC’s Panorama claimed that only one in four children with a mental health condition receives treatment from a child and adolescent mental health service; the burden falling on schools is clear.

The situation for older students is no less acute. The Office for National Statistics reported that the suicide rate among UK students rose by 56% between 2007 and 2016. The same period saw a three-fold increase in demand for student counselling services. Why?

“It isn’t one thing,” said Jo Midgley, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Student Experience) at UWE, citing student debt and “feeling the need to succeed because of the financial imperative to do so.” And then there is social media. “Digital natives are subject to lots of things that weren’t issues for previous generations; sometimes there’s no switch off.”

Technology’s paradox

There’s a paradox here: the sheer scale of the wellbeing crisis means that, although technology has created its own headaches, educators across the board are increasingly relying on its potential to offer solutions. Part of UWE’s Mental Wealth First strategy, for example, was to team with Solutionpath to study learning analytics, monitoring student engagement with the library, assessment hand-ins, use of VLE, and so forth. “If flags indicate a student is disengaging we will talk to them about what’s going on,” said Jo. It’s part of a plan using tech to redress a systemic issue. “I don’t think we’re alone in this, but we’ve developed our services without necessarily having the whole student journey in mind; they’re not connected to give a single view. Students want to feel that the university is interested in and cares for them as an individual. We can only hope to achieve that through a digital-first strategy.”

Technology that worked for one generation may not work for the next. Traditional counselling relying on picking up the phone, for example, may not be the most effective option in an era when unannounced calls almost constitute an invasion of privacy.

“There really is a sense of phone fear in the younger demographic,” said Sarah O’Donnell. “With 99% of 16–24s being regular internet users, it makes more sense to go to where they are.”

Big White Wall

Thus, Big White Wall, an online mental health and wellbeing service currently partnering 42 UK universities. Sarah is Senior Business Development Manager: “As well as helping those who wouldn’t dream of seeking face-to-face support, anonymity helps people get things off their chests that they’d be hesitant to share normally.” So does a sense of solidarity. In a moderated forum called Talkabout, members can chat together about anything from good news to darkest thoughts.

“A common thing with mental ill health and poor mental wellbeing is that people feel incredibly isolated,” said Sarah, “like they’re the only people that understand what they’re going through. This is a place where they feel understood.” According to Big White Wall, the platform sees 48% of users sharing an issue for the first time, with 67% reporting improved wellbeing.

The service also allows users to test their wellness across a range of fields ranging from sleep and eating disorders to anxiety and depression. Anyone scoring particularly highly will be spoken to. “It also informs our algorithms – again, tech doing good, not bad! – to give a personalised journey,” said Sarah. “For example, if someone’s sleeping isn’t great, we’ll suggest content tailored to them.”

School of thought

As in HE, progressive minds in primary and secondary education are keeping a close eye on how technology might aid student welfare. Besides providing mental health support in mainstream schools, young people’s mental health charity, the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, runs a school for young people excluded from mainstream education.

Here, pupils not only benefit from continued schooling, they’re the primary testers of a whole range of cutting-edge tech. An app called ReZone, for instance, designed to offer distressed or overwhelmed kids in class a way to refocus, was honed here before rolling out to wider trials.

Early results are “really pleasing,” said the charity’s Head of Digital Development & Evaluation, Julian Edbrooke-Childs, though he is careful not to make any grand claims. “Anything we’re developing we want to have an evidence base to make sure it works,” he explained. “The reason a lot of apps and digital health interventions don’t get off the ground is because they haven’t been designed by end users, and people don’t want to use them.”


Unlike Anna Freud, where other apps in development include Smart Gym (digital interventions assisting children in self-regulating their emotions), Power Up (helping young people be involved in shared decision-making about their mental health) and a digital toolkit for teachers to look after themselves.

“If teachers aren’t being supported with their own mental health and wellbeing,” said Julian, “it’s going to be really challenging for them to then support their students.”

More immediately accessible, Anna Freud also collaborated on MentallyHealthySchools.org.uk, a website featuring 400+ resources for students, teachers, carers and young people seeking off-the-shelf support.


Kit inspection

Among other welfare-focused edtech to catch our eye, a series of ‘video bursts’ on Spongy Elephant’s online training platform makes good on co-founder David Paice’s desire to offer “mental health first-aid training for teachers as you would for physical ailments.”

Then there’s MiRo, the robot pet developed by Consequential Robotics.

It turns green when soothed, red if roughly treated. Besides giving feedback to children about appropriate behaviour, said co-founder Tony Prescott, it could help those with difficulty communicating emotion: “If the robot is upset by a loud noise, that’s maybe something they can identify with and then talk about the things making them unhappy.” Outer design completed, the team are now planning AI innards able to recognise human movement and posture, and respond accordingly.

Brilliant Schools

Finally, Andy Cope’s not-for-profit Brilliant Schools programme. “When anybody talks about mental health, what they really mean is mental ill health,” he said. The Doctor of Psychology claims that “every single lecture I went to was named after a disorder. Psychology has never studied people who are already feeling amazing. These weirdoes have been shunned, but what if they’ve got the cure?” To that end, he spent 12 years researching what makes ‘happy’ people tick, translating the results into class-based workshops and, now, a bank of online resources: “Netflix, but for wellbeing.”

The curriculum, he argues, finds “happiness completely missing off the agenda. Forward-thinking schools may wheel in a mindfulness expert for a meditation session to calm pupils before exams, but it’s bolted on. The system currently is to work the kids to death and fix them when they break; if we integrate wellbeing into the curriculum, they wouldn’t need to.”

This integrated approach to wellbeing in education holds numerous possibilities for the improvement of mental health for both students and staff. If we can ensure that the approach remains a holistic one, and that tech is a carefully considered support system for well-rounded wellbeing programmes, rather than a sticking plaster addition hastily foisted upon the education sector, there may be a revolution ahead of us after all.