Taking the mental health message to Westminster

Written by: Andy Mellor | Published:
Pedal power: Andy Mellor (centre of the five) and his cycling team in Blackpool preparing to set off on their four-day journey

The mental health problems facing young people are clear and present to anyone working in primary education. Andy Mellor recently took on a four-day cycle to Westminster to raise awareness of the issue

At the age of 54 you would think that I had more sense than to put myself through the training and the pain of a bike ride from Blackpool to London.

However, as the current president of the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) I chose Place2Be as our charity partner for the year. This was because if you work in schools and have done for some time, you will have seen the growth in children’s mental health needs at a time when resources either from the NHS or in school budgets have dwindled. It is a perfect storm.

Place2Be provides emotional and therapeutic services in primary and secondary schools, building children’s resilience through talking, creative work and play. Their work has a phenomenal impact.

While government looks to school exclusions as the reason for knife crime and puts what little resources they have into adult mental health, there is a far greater and more complex mental health storm forming in children and young people, which if left unaddressed will blight the lives of many for generations to come. Early intervention is an oft-used mantra but rarely do the resources follow as this is a long-term plan and governments are concerned about their term of office.

So the idea of a bike ride, while raising much-needed funds to help address children’s mental health in a practical sense, was about raising the issue with government.

The lack of prominence given to children and young people’s mental health in Westminster can be seen from the fact that a recent debate in Parliament on the issue attracted just 11 MPs into the chamber, and from the fact that there was no response from Number 10 when we asked if we could deliver our message on children and young people’s mental health to the prime minister when we arrived in London.

The fact that Brexit seems to occupy most of the oxygen of political debate is no excuse for just 11 MPs showing up for a debate which concerns every single MP and their constituents. So the message for me was just as important as the money raised, if not more so.

The ride itself was hard in so much as my work with NAHT sees me travelling across the UK and so time at home to train was at a premium. However at this point I have to pay tribute to the team who got me through.

I met Graeme Duncan, the CEO of Right to Succeed, when he was working in Blackpool (where my school is). His charity works to bring together the people driving improvements in education in a coordinated effort to overcome the issues of inequity affecting young people. He is so committed to social justice and children’s mental health that when I asked him about the ride he had no hesitation in joining us.

Darren Mussell is a fellow headteacher from east Lancashire and a friend and colleague who I have known for some time. He, like me, deals with the effects of poor pupil mental health in school on a daily basis.

Toby Barnett is a mate (a tree surgeon and local scout leader) who loves his cycling and wants to help children and young people to be the best they can be. His commitment to children and young people is incredible.

And Jeff Duncan was behind the wheel in our support bus. He was there when we needed him and we could not have completed the trip without him.

On the first leg from Blackpool to Knutsford we were joined by Jamie Peacock, ex-GB rugby league captain. His commitment to children’s mental health was clear to see in the short time he was with us. It was a long day battling gusty winds but we made it.

On day two we headed for Walsall as our next stop and the first day’s cycling had clearly taken its toll on our legs. Day three saw us head from Walsall to Bletchley. By the time we arrived in Bletchley it was getting dark thanks to a magical detour around the Northamptonshire countryside. We had our one and only puncture during this section and I managed to collide with a canal tunnel wall under Spaghetti Junction (with a rip in my jacket to show for it).

Day four and we headed off from Bletchley for London via Radlett in Hertfordshire. The previous day we had glimpsed London from afar but today we arrived in the capital. It was surreal to be cycling into the capital through the Mall, Pall Mall and Horse Guard’s Parade and then we saw Parliament Square and our welcome party of Place2Be staff.

The end: The team's arrival in London after four days on the road, where they were greeted by members of the Place2Be team

It was four days of hard work, but great camaraderie. Although we have raised the profile of children’s mental health and some funds to help support children with mental health difficulties we still have much to do. The story does not stop here. We have raised almost £4,000. We need to get our fundraising page over £10,000, our original goal, and if you can contribute that would be fantastic (see below).

Beyond this we need to keep pushing the government to recognise the crisis in children’s mental health. Without the support these children need, they will struggle to learn and become the very best they can be. The bike ride may be over but the fight for our children’s mental health continues!

  • Andy Mellor is president of the National Association of Head Teachers. He is headteacher of St Nicholas CE Primary School in Blackpool.

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