New for 2018/19, this will be the space where PD North members and some special guest Bloggers will share ideas and experiences. Watch this space and, if you would like to write a Blog for us, on the topic of further / adult community education and skills, please contact Chloë at chloeh@pdnorth.org.uk

Writer Guidelines:

WORD: 300 – 1,000 words. Keep it short and engaging. Something folks can read in their break, on the bus or in the staffroom when they have a spare moment.

STYLE: Flexible. We’re interested in: Voices from the classroom/staffroom. Resource explorations. Reviews of books, blogs and events. Think pieces. Descriptions of PDNorth exchange activity. Critical thoughts.

REFERENCES: If you choose to mention other people’s work, events, videos, resources etc please reference them and give them the kudos they deserve.

A mental ill-health epidemic in #FE or something else entirely?

Social influences, labelling or a mental health epidemic? Understanding learner mental-ill health and its drivers is critical for us as #FE educators.
Image credit: Tim Gouw (Unsplash, 2019)

PD North member Rebecca Gillett from Myerscough College shares her fascinating research into student mental-ill health.

“A mental health epidemic is underway in Britain’s schools” (Moran 2019)

 But is there really???

At the moment it seems that we are hard pressed not to pick up a newspaper, see posts on social media or internet news pages informing us that adverse mental health is on the rise. I too seem to be coming in to contact with more students each year that identify as having adverse mental health, a belief that seems to be shared by some colleagues. Ultimately, I have the same goal that I am sure is shared by all teachers; I want to ensure that I support students that identify as having adverse mental health to reach their goals, aspirations and achieve their full potential within the educational system. However, although I am empathic towards the plight of these students I do question if there is true rise in adverse mental health? Could there be other factors contributing to this apparent epidemic?

Scouring the internet to source figures that document the prevalence of mental health disorders in Britain, it becomes apparent that differing authors use different terminology and age rages. The differences in age ranges and terminology used to quantify data can sometime make it difficult to understand the true extent of the problem for the 16-18 year old age range. The best major survey to examine trends of mental health in Britain appears to be that completed by NHS digital in 2017 and published in 2018. This survey allows data to be compared to the previous surveys completed in 1999 and 2004. However, although these surveys seemed to be the best source of data on the prevalence of mental health disorders, prior to 2017 16-18 year old were not included in the samples. Therefore, it becomes very difficult to confirm that data validates the belief that there is a rise in mental health disorders.

The NHS digital survey documents 4 categories of mental health disorders; ‘Emotional disorders’, ‘Behavioural or Conduct disorders’, ‘Hyperactivity disorders’ and ‘Other less common disorders’. Stepping away from my interest in the figures for 16-19 year olds for a moment and viewing the data on the age bracket of 5-15 year olds, it becomes apparent that ‘Emotional disorders’ are the only category that has seen a rise in prevalence for children aged 5-15. Emotional disorders have risen from 4.3% in 1999 to 5.8% in 2017, all other groups have stabilised in frequency (NHS digital 2018). Included in the category of ‘Emotional disorders’ are 3 subcategorises; Depressive Disorders, Bipolar Affective Disorder/Manic Episode and Anxiety Disorders. Anxiety disorders includes conditions such as; Separation Anxiety, Generalised Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Specific Phobia, Social Phobia, Agoraphobia, Panic Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Other Anxiety Disorders and Body Dysmorphic Disorder (Vizard et al 2018). However, it cannot be assumed that the 1.5% rise in emotional mental health disorders are directly transferable to 16-19 year olds, without having previous statistics to compare the current findings with. Approximately one in eight 17-19 year olds are documented as having an anxiety disorder and approximately one in twenty 17-19 year olds are documented as having a depressive disorder (Vizard et al 2018) but is this any worse than it was in 1999 for this age group?

Society is also not was it was; could the constructs of society also be contributing to the higher reported figures of children and adolescents’ with emotional mental health disorders? It is documented by Time to Change (2019) that the Attitude to Mental Illness survey indicates a 9.6% change in the attitude of the public during 2008-2016, with an estimated 4.1 million people having improved attitudes towards mental health. By decreasing the stigma attached to adverse mental health and creating a more accepting society this must surely lead to increased public confidence in disclosure of emotional mental health disorders. Maybe this epidemic has always been there; maybe we are now just aware of its existence. Could what we are seeing in the education system not be an explosive rise of emotional mental health disorders but adolescents’ that now just feel more comfortable in vocalising their troubles?

Looking on the flip side of the coin, could it also be argued, that a change in what degree of problem consists as an emotional mental health disorder has impacted on the prevalence of these conditions? Research has documented to me the belief of some authors that some children are identifying upsetting emotions as emotional mental health disorders. The definition of adverse mental health may have altered so much over recent years that normal human emotions are now being misidentified as emotional mental health disorders. Could a moral panic around adverse mental health be happening, McKinstry (2017) suggested that ‘gas-lighting’ is beginning to occur around mental illness; society is convinced that once normal, acceptable emotions are actually a sign of physiological illness.

Worryingly, could we be making the mental health epidemic worse with our ‘love’ of labelling?  Labels can be placed with the best of intensions; increasing the likelihood of access to services and support. However, if the threshold has changed between experiencing emotional difficulties and that which requires treatment, labels then placed for emotional mental health disorders will have increased in prevalence. It is also no secret that mental health services are struggling to meet demand, leaving adolescents’ that identify as having adverse mental health without the required support. Coupling this with the self-fulfilling prophecy, the placement of labels could be impacting on the figures for adverse mental health; placing a label of adverse mental health could cause the sufferers to identify more with the symptoms. Considering this with the belief that upsetting emotions could be being misidentified from sufferers as a mental health disorders in the first place, the self-fulfilling prophecy could then occur and perpetuate the likelihood of adverse mental health.

So circling back to where I started, is a mental health epidemic really underway? Figures support that there is a rise in emotional mental health disorder, albeit for a different age bracket. However, let’s assume for a moment that this figure rise is directly transferable to the 16-19 year old age bracket, it appears that it isn’t as simple as saying- “yes emotional mental health disorders are increasing”. Societal influences, changes within definitions and labelling all could have their part to play in an increasing number of adolescents’ with emotional mental health disorders. Whatever the cause, the statistics suggest that more adolescents’ will present identifying as having adverse mental health. Ultimately I suppose that as a teacher the cause of the rise in prevalence will have no bearing on lesson delivery but does help me to put in to perspective what current headlines are screaming at me.


McKinstry, L. (2017).  Our obsession with mental illness is far from healthy, (Online), Available from: https://www.express.co.uk/comment/columnists/leo-mckinstry/803114/mental-health-illness-campaign-lobby-depression-obsession-leo-mckinstry. (Accessed on: 17/2/2019).

Moran, L. (2019). Layla Moran: A mental health epidemic is underway in Britain’s schools, (Online), Available from: https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/education/2019/02/layla-moran-mental-health-epidemic-underway-britain-s-schools. (Accessed on: 07/04/2019).

National Health Service(NHS) digital. (2018). Mental Health of Children and Young People in England, 2017 Summary of key findings. Leeds: NHS Digital.

Time to Change. (2019). Our impact, (Online), Available from: https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/home/about-us/our-impact. (Accessed on: 27/09/2019).

Vizard, T., Pearce, N., Davis, J., Sadler, K., Ford, T. Goodman, A., Goodman, R. & McManus, S. (2018). Mental Health of Children and Young People in England, 2017 Emotional disorders. Leeds: NHS Digital.

Building Communities, Building Teachers; Communities of Practice in Action

By Debbie Williams, PD North member and Teaching and Learning Manager at Lancaster and Morecambe College

Photo by insung yoon on Unsplash

Having delivered teacher training for many years, I’ve found that one of the greatest pleasures of the role is seeing trainee teachers enlivened, motivated and inspired by the professional discussions they have with others who teach in different areas. Trainees tend to arrive to evening classes weary at the end of their working day, but leave the session energised and with minds buzzing with learning and ideas.

We wanted to bring that positive energy into the staff training for all the teachers at Lancaster and Morecambe College. For many staff it’s a long time since they did their initial training, and a lot of exciting developments have emerged from the evidence base on effective teaching since then. We wanted to build professional communities of teachers who didn’t usually work together, or even really know each other, where they could share ideas and explore emerging research through informed discussion.

Groups of around 10 teachers were groupedinto “Communities of Practice” to meet at the end of a working day on five evenly-spaced weeks throughout the college year. The groups were scheduled for times which all contracted staff would be able to attend, and attendance was mandatory for these teachers – it was optional for non-contracted teachers. Most of the groups met at the same time on the same corridor, which created a feeling that there was something going on!

A small team of enthusiastic and experienced teachers who were keen to facilitate a group were sent materials for the session ahead, along with a plan of how to share these with their group – topics included active learning, marking work, and metacognition. Conference video clips and extracts from research reports were used, and there was plenty of time built in for teachers to share their thoughts and examples of effective practice from their areas.

The group facilitators hugely enjoyed the role, and often reported having lively staffroom discussions on the same topics in the following weeks!

Levels of attendance were good on the whole – a handful of teachers didn’t attend at all, but most attended regularly, with clear expectations from managers contributing to this. It meant that far more staff than usual had attended regular in-house training by the end of the year, in contrast to the low numbers attending the optional training sessions run in previous years.

At the end of this first year the teachers involved completed an anonymous survey about their groups, to see how effective they had been in meeting the aim of improving teaching across the college. A key question was “”What impact has attending the sessions had on your teaching this year?” This was a completely open comment box, giving teachers the clear opportunity to declare “none”!  Unsurprisingly, a few did just that; however, 80% of teachers reported at least one way in which their practice had improved, the majority of them stating that they had increased the range of teaching and learning strategies they used in the classroom.

Next year we will be re-mixing the communities, giving our teachers the chance to hold professional discussions with different colleagues. From our experiences this year it’s clear that the communities have helped to build new cross-college relationships, build teacher confidence and build better teachers.

Overpowering the staff room garlics…

By Sue Keenan, Head of Teaching and Learning at Myerscough College.

Tofu or garlic - the choice to become either is within us!
Tofu or not tofu, that is the question?
Cartoon by Vicky Butterby, PD North

A long time ago, I was on a training course about preparing to work overseas in a new culture. One question posed was ‘are you going to be a garlic or a tofu?’ . The definition of a garlic was someone who went with the attitude that they knew best, their way was best and that things should be done their way. In other words, infusing  and overpowering everything with their strong garlicky flavour so that other flavours were obliterated. In contrast the tofu was someone who absorbed the range of favours around them. A tofu was a person who learned about the new culture and soaked it all up,recognising that they needed to change their world view.

It’s a metaphor that’s stayed with me and can be applied at times to our culture in education. I’ve worked in many staff rooms and offices over my career where there can be a couple of garlics….these are the people that constantly permeate the space with negativity. They moan about the leaders and managers, the learners, teaching, the job….for whatever reason they aren’t positive about the job anymore. I get the challenges. We are in a time of deep cuts in funding in the FE sector. We don’t feel confident about job security.We work hard teaching, marking, planning and preparing.

The garlics in education can be very toxic. They can suck the enthusiasm out of teachers who have come into work feeling positive, they can have a huge impact on staff morale and organisational culture.

That’s why it’s really important to surround yourself at work with the positive sunny people, the ones that love teaching, the ones that get a real buzz from seeing their learners achieve. If we go into lessons feeling negative then this will have a huge impact on how are learners feel and what they achieve. And after all, the learners are the reason we’re all working in education, aren’t they?

We can all be a little bit garlic sometimes, we might not agree with a decision made at a higher level, we might just be a bit fed up, but we need to manage our own behaviour as professionals and keep our outlook positive. We need to recognise if we are becoming a little bit toxic….

Surround yourself at work with the sunny people, the ones who come into work with a smile on their face. The ones who are new to the job and are excited to do it. The ones who have been teaching for a long time and still enjoy it. Lots of sunny people together have great power to do great things in education. They determine the culture of an organisation far more than senior leaders do.

In these tough times, try to keep your outlook and attitude as a teacher sunny side up.Have fun at work and enjoy the job. Have positive impact on those around you. Together lets try to support  those pungent garlics and turn them into tofu, soaking up the sunshine and positivity around them.