Case study: Making mental health a priority in Morecambe

Written by: Emma Lee-Potter | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The mental health and wellbeing of pupils and families has become a priority for primary schools, nowhere more so than at Morecambe Bay Primary. Emma Lee-Potter finds out about their work

When Siobhan Collingwood became headteacher of a Lancashire primary school 14 years ago she never imagined the complex range of issues she would be dealing with on a daily basis.

Pupils at Morecambe Bay Primary School in the coastal resort of Morecambe face a host of challenges. With the local economy in decline, a preponderance of multi-tenancy housing and an increase in the use of food banks, many families are in crisis – and this impacts on the mental and emotional wellbeing of pupils. Furthermore, 50 per cent of the 310 children on the school roll have free school meals and 56 per cent are eligible for Pupil Premium funding.

During her first weeks at Morecambe Bay, Ms Collingwood found a 10-year-old pupil sitting in the middle of the road. The girl was tearing chunks of her hair out, throwing them on the ground and saying she would be better off dead.

“I went outside to talk to her and try to bring her in,” Ms Collingwood recalled. “In my innocence I thought she would immediately receive emergency help from CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) but we were told she would have to go on a long waiting list.

“It was a real lightbulb moment in terms of realising that there was a very limited resource and as a school we were going to have to skill ourselves up very quickly in terms of being able to deal with issues like this.

“Morecambe is a seaside resort, with all the issues associated with seaside areas – an area of deprivation with high levels of transience and the toxic trio of mental health issues, domestic abuse and drug and alcohol usage. Some children and families are living in very poor conditions and as a consequence they move from one house to another.”

Poverty is an on-going concern and Morecambe Bay has introduced some practical measures to help families cope. The school provides breakfast for every child every morning and teachers have sometimes done pupils’ laundry because their families can’t afford to do it themselves.

There have been occasions when parents have passed out through hunger and the school now works with a food charity that distributes waste food from supermarkets: “We bring it back to school and 30 families a week come and help themselves to a weekly shop for £3.”

Morecambe Bay Primary is by no means the only school facing challenges that impact on children’s mental health. A recent NHS report found that one in eight young people in England aged between five and 19 suffers with a mental health disorder (One in eight students have a mental health disorder, official NHS figures confirm, Headteacher Update, November 2018: http://bit.ly/2ElQaoX).

Other research published by Mental Health First Aid England found that the proportion of youngsters aged between four and 24 reporting a long-standing mental health condition increased six-fold between 1995 and 2014.

With that in mind, Ms Collingwood and her team place wellbeing at the heart of everything they do and have worked to equip themselves with the skills they need to support their pupils and parents.

“I worked with child psychologists and we brought in two nurture groups, one for key stage 1 and one for key stage 2,” she explained. “We beefed up the pastoral team so we had enough learning mentors to be able to spend time with the children who needed support, helping them to regulate their agitation and giving them a safe space – and thereby giving their classes a bit of respite and giving teachers the ability to concentrate on teaching in the classroom.

“I had to get up-to-speed with all of this really quickly and now the team we have built up has become so skilled in a wide range of mental health support issues. We counsel children in how to deal with anger management-related issues, talk to parents about debt-related crises, talk to parents who find themselves in trouble with gangs and in fear of their lives. All of these things were conversations I never imagined I was going to have as a teacher.”

All the Morecambe Bay staff have had Mental Health First Aid training and feel equipped to deal with issues that arise.
“The thing you hear a lot from the teaching profession is that teachers are scared they might do more harm than good if they get involved and that this is beyond their expertise,” said Ms Collingwood.

“I try to explain that obviously if you’re getting into more extreme situations then a specialist is required, but at the early stages it can be as simple as being attuned, being able to listen and being knowledgeable about a range of mental health issues. Good schools know their communities really well and they will often find better solutions than an externally enforced solution.”

Ms Collingwood and her SENCO have worked alongside CAMHS colleagues to drive the development of a network of 200 Mental Health Champions in the Lancaster and Morecambe area. Set up two years ago, the network works closely with local mental health workers and includes police officers, GPs, health visitors, school nurses, members of children’s social care, CAMHS practitioners, third sector groups and schools and colleges.

“We’ve worked out pathways for different mental health conditions, developed a catalogued resource for each of them and made sure that everyone in the network has had free access to Mental Health First Aid training,” said Ms Collingwood.
The network holds an annual conference and runs training events. Around 250 people recently attended a training day on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and trauma-informed care and 16 local schools are now working with a consultant to become trauma-informed in their practice.

“This has been a significant cultural change in the local area and it’s good for my school to know they are not the only school experiencing these issues,” Ms Collingwood added.

“We get together with other like-minded professionals, share stories and come up with solutions together. It is that sense of ‘it’s not just us’. You don’t feel as isolated dealing with issues.”

The head is convinced that using a shared language when talking about mental and emotional wellbeing has helped staff and pupils alike.

“I had one child in my office talking about self-harming and I was able to talk to them about emotional regulation, their emotional bucket and understanding the fight-flight-freeze response. We all use that language so the children are able to talk about emotional intelligence, the need to self-regulate and the need to spot the ‘icky feelings’ in their tummies that tell them to take preventative measures and get out of that stressful situation. Hopefully it will help break the cycle of ACEs within their own families as well.”

Much to the team’s surprise, Morecambe Bay Primary has become famous around the world. After reports in the New York Times and on ITV highlighting the number of children in the UK living in poverty well-wishers donated clothes, toys and food for the school to distribute among children and parents.

“Everyone was very touched,” said Ms Collingwood. “I remember one little boy who was going through a very tough time and he said: ‘Isn’t it lovely that people care about us.’

“We gave him two bags of food to take home and he said he had literally never seen so much food in his kitchen.”

But despite the issues the school is dealing with, its pupils are maintaining “a consistently good rate of progress and pleasing test results” and the school has won several awards. Attendance rates are close to the national average and the school rarely excludes pupils.

Morecambe Bay’s five core values, designed to help children develop strengths like resilience, effort and happiness, are integrated into assemblies and lessons and there is a plethora of awards, from a homework challenge “to make something amazing” to rewards for enterprise skills.

The school strives to make use of its proximity to the sea: “The sadness is that even though they live right next to the beach many of them never get the chance to go and use it – so we’re looking to become a beach school. It’s a great resource to have on our doorstep and we do all sorts of things, such as a First World War re-enactment, making films and podcasts, sand sculptures, bird-watching and finding out about tourism in the area.”

Morecambe Bay Primary also made headlines in 2016 when TV stations reported on the school’s science project to send a toy dog called Sam to the edge of space. The only problem was that Sam went missing in action and even though the tracking equipment was found in a field the cuddly toy is still missing.

“We were interviewed on CNN and by Reuters news agency and the children and parents were so proud,” said Ms Collingwood. “Working with our children is an absolute delight. Visitors come into school thinking it might be a miserable place – but it’s the happiest place you could ever hope for.

“We are by no means alone in our approach or in what we do for our children. There are an awful lot of very committed and diligent schools that are doing their best in very difficult circumstances. We are just one of them.”

  • Emma Lee-Potter is a freelance education writer.

MHFA England

Mental Health First Aid England recently launched the #HandsUp4HealthyMinds toolkit, a set of resources to help teachers, carers and parents identify signs of mental ill health in young people aged eight to 24. For more information, go to www.mhfaengland.org


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