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Opinion4th February 2021

Ark Blake Academy’s response to growing mental health concerns

In September 2020, 180 Year 7 students began their secondary education at the new Ark Blake Academy in Croydon when it opened its doors. Despite it being only a small cohort of students, we have observed numerous cases of COVID-19-related anxiety – both mild and severe. The impact of lockdown and school closures is affecting students’ social and emotional development.

An SDQ (Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire) assessment was conducted in September: 34% of students were in the highest band categorisation, revealing high levels of emotional distress. Additionally, over half of the cohort reported that they ‘get on better with adults’ than with people their age. This mirrors national observations that a lengthy social distancing period has placed a significant strain on friendships and deteriorated social skills.

Alongside this, young people in Croydon face significant challenges at home. Many experience high levels of social deprivation and domestic violence or are known to social services. The cohort at Ark Blake comprises of students from numerous vulnerable categories. Undoubtedly, spending prolonged periods at home without respite is exceptionally challenging for them.

The school has implemented several measures to support students, including:

School Counsellor (1:1)

Using the Ark’s additional funding, a trained counsellor provides five hours of weekly counselling to select pupils. They have seen a total of nine students, some for the entirety of the school year so far. This provision has had clear and marked outcomes such as better management, increased attendance at school and access to services.

Listening Service

The Access and Inclusion team run drop-in sessions offering a semi-confidential listening and signposting service. Staff provide low-level coping strategies and direct pupils towards further support and resources. Students feel confident and comfortable talking about mental health concerns. Mental health concerns are detected early, and students can receive targeted support.

Whole school awareness

Ark Blake has successfully promoted awareness and reduced the stigma around mental health, utilising visible displays, posters around the school building, and whole school assemblies led by the Access and Inclusion team.

New term 2021

As the school cohort grows, there will be an increased need for more in-school mental health support. Alongside helping Year 8s, there will be a focus on the incoming Year 7s. Some of them might not have visited the school in person before they start this September. They may be worried and excited (usual for new starters but exacerbated by the pandemic). They may not have been in a classroom for several months. They will have to learn new teachers’ names, find their way around new classrooms/layouts, or even do some lessons remotely with classmates they do not know yet.

Chris Martlew (Intervention Tutor and Mental Health First Aider at Ark Blake), said: “Counselling, funded through Ark central, is an invaluable resource for both staff and pupils. It has provided quality interventions that have addressed serious mental health needs and reduced the burden on the pastoral team. As a result, staff have had the scope to establish a whole-school approach to pupil welfare that empowers pupils to seek out support and addresses the wide-reaching impact of the pandemic head-on.

One Year 7 student said: “I have found the counselling sessions helpful because I understand myself better and don’t get as anxious as I used to.

There are so many variables, but Ark Blake’s focus will be on ensuring all students settle in, have a routine and are supported emotionally as well as academically.