Mental Health in schools: learning lessons from the past

Dave McPartlan
A teacher in the UK for over 35 years, Dave’s career focussed on pastoral and welfare aspects of education as an Assistant Headteacher at a large secondary comprehensive school in northern England, UK. After leaving teaching he embarked on a research career focussing on YPAR within a school context. His research has enabled young people to be co-research partners in projects which have enabled them to contribute to school improvement for the first time. Dave also led an Emerging Minds SIG which explored what young people need to take responsibility for their own mental health, and what society needs to do to support them in taking responsibility. He also works as the liaison for the Collaborative Action Research Network (CARN) and the Action Research Network of the Americas (ARNA), and is also an active member of ARNA's YPAR ARC which is committed to developing a global YPAR network. Dave submitted his PhD in March 2023 and is awaiting his viva; his thesis focuses on the impact of power on young people’s identity and agency to act and the impact this can have on school culture.

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In this blog I look at how recent education policy has contributed towards schools being at least partially responsible for the deteriorating mental health of the young people (YP) they serve. I also explore what we need to do to ensure that we learn from our mistakes of the past.


March this year saw the publication of a report (Cortina & Linehan, 2021) that explores the perception of YP in schools as to how they view mental health and the support that their institutions offer; a pertinent issue in the UK in 2021. Whilst the pandemic may be a contributory factor, the increase in mental health problems from one in eight to one in six between 2017 and today is alarming and needs addressing urgently. Unfortunately, it seems that recent changes in education have impacted negatively YP emotional wellbeing. The question needs to be asked whether we have learnt from our past mistakes or are we going to make them over again?

Adolescent mental health is an ever-increasing problem

Changing culture and changing values 

During my career, first as a classroom teacher and then as a pastoral assistant headteacher, I noticed a gradual but distinct change in school ethos as an education enterprise culture was introduced. From the 1970s onwards successive governments built upon the work of previous administrations as a culture fuelled by competition seeped in to, subsumed and changed forever school values. As schools have grown in to multi-million-pound academy chains then so their values have changed. Schools that were once controlled by local authorities have been channelled along an individualised, corporate and selfish route. I would argue that values have been skewed towards economics as institutions now need to compete with market forces in order to survive. From my own personal experience, I have seen ‘good and honest’ professionals push at both legal and moral boundaries when it comes to exams. Headteachers and Curriculum Leaders turning a ‘blind eye’ to ensure targets are achieved. I believe that the pressure of accountability through the market has eroded the value base within the profession.

Policies introduced to facilitate this change required a new breed of headteacher. The traditional manager-academic was replaced by ‘quality-driven’ professionals whose job was to market the school, attract greater pupil numbers, improve results and hold their staff to account. Thatcher (1995), talked about ‘dependency culture’ and the problems created by the welfare state. Her aim was to replace this culture with the value of ‘self’ and this was reflected by what happened in schools. The values that once centred around the child refocussed on the market. It was about image, exam results and competition for market share; self-interest was required in order to thrive, or on occasions, just survive. School values were set by individual headteachers many of whom were under increasing pressure in this new competitive world where “institutional survival was at stake” (Grace, 1996). They chased the promise of money by becoming independent of LEAs. Improving exam results was essential as this was the new currency of success; bright, motivated and successful students would add value through exams and were therefore valued by schools.

Whilst government policy was about economics, market share and self-interest, individual schools first priority should have been the YP they serve. The balance between what is best for the school and what is best for the YP that it attracts, is a delicate one. This new breed of headteacher focussed on school survival via exam success, and some YP did not fit this new essential profile. A YP with mental health problems was unlikely to provide value in terms of image or exam results and the outcome was that schools shunned them!  School finance that was required to provide services to support such YP was required but money was often unavailable as budgets were being concentrated on marketing and results.

Education policy has been detrimental to young people’s mental health

Exams, exams, exams

The underlying messages from government and OFSTED was that the only currency that counted was exam results. The introduction of targets and school league tables filtered down to create a culture of performativity. This was taken to extremes by teachers who were in fear of failure; failure not of their students but of reaching their ever increasing, continuously stretched and often unrealistic targets. This had little to do with child-centred education (O’Neill, and Adams, 2012). The post-war welfare agenda had been overtaken by a neoliberal one that valued the market and self. Unfortunately, the legacy of these policies lives on today and is still impacting on some of our most vulnerable YP.

The policies introduced to increase competition have resulted in an increase in ‘high-pressure’ exams which in turn have contributed to the poor mental health of some of our vulnerable YP (Glazzard, 2019). 80% of young people surveyed by Young Minds cited academic pressure as a factor that impacted on their mental health (Cowburn & Blow, 2017). Unfortunately schools under pressure to perform transferred this pressure on to staff and students increasing anxiety in both (ASCL, n.d.). Teaching to the test (Stotesbury & Dorling, 2015) and the reduction in social time during the school day (Baines E, 2019) were responsible for this pressure increase and as a teacher, I saw extra after school catch-up classes as well as weekend and holiday sessions introduced. These were taken as the norm; few questioned their worth and even fewer had thought about the impact it was having on the mental health of our YP. In addition the drive for exam success has seen a narrowing of the curriculum that has resulted in an alienation of our YP (Glazzard, and Stones, 2021).

The intention of the latest OFSTED framework (Ofsted, 2019) was to change the focus from exam results as a limiting factor in school inspections, to a broader holistic approach. Whilst I can site examples of schools following the OFSTED lead and trying to redress the balance, it is also clear that other schools continue to chase the golden egg of exam results. One such example is the academy trust that assesses Yr11 students six times between January and April and then replaces ‘under-performing’ teachers with ‘superteachers’ whose job it is to hit the class targets!

Schools need to move away from the exams at all cost culture


As we come out of lockdown and young people return to school now is the time to reassess our values to ensure that YP are at the heart of everything we do. Schools need to focus on what is best for their students; yes, it is important that they achieve to their potential but that doesn’t mean increasing anxieties through pressured schooling. Workload, the stress of exams and general school experience all contribute towards YP’s deteriorating mental health (Cortina & Linehan, 2021). We need to listen to what YP are telling us and return to a school value base that has its foundations in child centred approaches.

Schools need to focus on a holistic education that is centred on the young people best interests.

Conflict of interests: None

Other resources

  • Blog ‘Redistributing power in schools and how this can impact young people’s agency and identity’ by Dave McPartlan (September 2023)
  • Blog ‘Developing schools to enhance young people’s mental health’ by Dave McPartlan (June 2023)


ACSL. (n.d.). Struggling students are ‘completely demoralised’ by tough new GCSEs.

Baines E, B. P. (2019). School break and lunch times and young people’s social lives: A follow-up national study. Retrieved from

Cortina, M., & Linehan, T. (2021). Working towards mentally healthy schools and FE colleges : the voice of students. Retrieved from

Cowburn, A., & Blow, M. (2017). Wise up: Prioritising wellbeing in schools. Retrieved from

Glazzard, J. (2019). A whole-school approach to supporting children and young people’s mental health. Journal of Public Mental Health, 18(94), 256–265. JPMH-10-2018-0074

Glazzard, Jonathan, & Stones, S. (2021). Supporting Young People ’ s Mental Health : Reconceptualizing the Role of Schools or a Step Too far ? 5(February), 1–5.

Grace, G. (1996). School Leadership:Beyond Educational Management. London: Falmer.

O’Neill, J. and Adams, P. (2012). “Damned to mediocrity”: political targets, bureaucratic intent, classroom performativity and the child as cipher. New Zealand Journal of Teachers’ Work, 9, 1–5.

Ofsted. (2019). The Education Inspection Framework (Vol. 2005, pp. 1–14). Vol. 2005, pp. 1–14.

Stotesbury, N., & Dorling, D. (2015). Understanding Income Inequality and its Implications : Why Better Statistics Are Needed. Retrieved from STATS & DATA SCIENCE VIEWS website:

Thatcher, M. (1995). The Downing Stree Years. London: Harper Collins.



This is 100% spot on. We need to be supporting the whole child through a trauma informed lens and stop this blame culture that has infiltrated the education system.
Literacy around mental health is a really important element we are pushing children to see themselves as unwell with anxiety, depression and OCD when they are going through natural episodes and learning resilience. Let’s move away from medical terminology and identify so much more as a pre medical situation that can be managed by the young person with knowledge and support enabling them to Thrive

Matt Kempen

Dave McPartlan “I agree and also worry that the government may well be playing games, it has implemented something that only addresses part of the problem. The answers are unsurprisingly far more complex and it is not a quick fix. Multiple approaches are required that need to include social care, education and medical services if we are serious about making a difference to young people’s mental health”

A really interesting and thought provoking piece, thank you.

Matt Kempen

Dave McPartlan “Many thanks I appreciate the feedback”

I enjoyed reading this thank you, and as a former primary headteacher now coaching leaders and teachers and families in schools, as a mental health and wellbeing coach, this article does not have regard to schools with good practice. The current catch up rhetoric has little regard to the holistic approach in education, and the politicians prefer to focus purely on empirical data. Mostly they have very little understanding of state education.
It is a paradigm shift we desperately need and a way of sharing practice. Wellbeing is about a way of life, a culture of caring and listening. Something we need as a human race.
I would love to know more about your research group.

Matt Kempen

Dave McPartlan “Thank you for the comment. Unfortunately in my experience there are very few schools who were able to keep to their values and put the child at the centre; the child’s best interest seemed always to be about getting the maximum in terms of exam results without thinking of the consequences. I worry that those setting the educational agenda do not understand that children will do better if they are listened to, nurtured and supported in their schooling rather than pressured in to performing; there is also a balance to be met here.”

Dave, excellent! I firmly believe what you have stated is the case. I have been a head of special educational needs and disability services for local authority and a principal educational psychologist for 15 years. I was also a member of a previous governments national advisory council for child and adolescent mental health – disbanded. Children’s well-being and mental health in education has been a major focus of my work for 30 years. I was also a member of the targeted mental health in schools national steering group for DCSF. Another initiative driven into the long grass! A history of “good tries” but little fundenental change.

I firmly believe that what we have done in educational policy and practice over the last 20+ years has negatively impacted on our children and young peoples academic outcomes as well as the emotional well-being and mental health. This has had repercussions and implications on societal well-being and mental health.

I would be really happy and delighted to see how things develop.

Matt Kempen

Dave McPartlan “Many thanks for the comments”

I whole-heartedly agree with everything within this blog and I have counselled YP who have been suffering under the pressure from not only the school but also compounded by parental expectations. I would also raise the issue of Academy education hindering the potential achievement of YP who are capable of producing great exam results, by removing them from their education with a highly punitive system based upon complete compliance in the classroom where YP are unable to challenge what they view as unfair treatment. I really don’t know how they get away with this! At it’s worst this can result in permanent exclusion and exposure to high risk outside of education, to gang recruitment and so on. Much, much more needs to be done.

Matt Kempen

Dave McPartlan “Thank you for the feedback. Much of the research about school climate suggests that in order for young people to feel safe/confident in school they need to be able build relationships with the staff. I agree that the zero tolerance culture that has been generated in some schools, is at best counter productive if good relationships are needed. I believe that this is an area that needs exploring further.”

Really agree with your view here, and the way education is so strongly skewed towards exams, ‘achievement at all costs’ really needs to change. I and many others I was at school with struggled due to these factors, and the overwhelming pressure it creates.
My team at work are looking for individuals to participate in a research study that aims to make changes to children’s mental health, and how it is dealt with in schools. Having read your blog, I think you’d be a great fit. Please feel free to drop me an email to find out more about what we’re hoping to do.

Matt Kempen

Dave McPartlan – thank you for your comments

I really agree with all your views and would just like to add that as a teacher of health and social care and also having worked for many years with YP as a youth support worker/ manager I have experienced both context i e in schools and in youth centres. Many of these YP achieve so much more in these social education environments e g DOE awards than in structured and far too restricted school settings. YPs’ health and well-being is something that as a society and especially government / education establishments must not be compromised because what and how they are feeling in themselves physically, intellectually, emotionally and socially as for they are concerned is reality for  them. Many of the year groups are going through social anxiety because they did not have proper transition due to the pandemic and we at school for the most part are having to deal with this and with referrals to mental health services on record high, we should all be concerned.   

Matt Kempen

Dave McPartlan – “Many thanks”

Hey ho Dave,
Very interesting article and much to agree with. I’m now in the former teacher standing but your views resonate with my feelings and values and experience. Somewhere in the last twenty years we lost our way as students became clients and data became the god. It was laudable to help students achieve success but at what cost? Unreal expectations (targets) led to huge levels of support (interventions) which led to pressure on students and teachers. All the while monitoring and accountability became pervasive and in some cases absurd as the golden goose was sought.

Matt Kempen

Many thanks Dave, I couldn’t agree more. – Dave McPartlan

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