Health and wellbeing lead in school ‘highly valued’ by families dealing with poverty

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The positive impact of a health and wellbeing lead helping low-income families in one south east school was highlighted in research co-authored by a University of Chichester academic.

The study aimed to highlight the impact of the school’s pioneering health and wellbeing role in light of non-compulsory guidance from the Government, with funding for every state school and college to train a senior mental health lead – but not a dedicated member of staff.

Whilst the researchers concluded a roll-out of this role could benefit other schools, more dedicated funding and investment would need to be found to make it sustainable for the longer term.

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The study centred on one primary school in a disadvantaged area of an affluent market town, and researchers spoke to parents about the impact the role had on the parents and their children.

Dr Sandra Lyndon, Reader in Childhood and Social Policy.Dr Sandra Lyndon, Reader in Childhood and Social Policy.
Dr Sandra Lyndon, Reader in Childhood and Social Policy.

Multiple, complex and inter-woven challenges were evident. These included: poverty and the cost of living crisis; grief and bereavement; domestic violence and relationship breakdown; special educational needs and disability matters (SEND); and medical needs, including mental health and anxiety. These all made up the ‘struggles’ being addressed by the Health and Wellbeing Lead, known to the researchers as ‘Katie’.

Katie had a background in family support rather than teaching. Nonetheless, she was brought in as a dedicated professional, reporting directly to senior staff, to deliver pastoral support to children and families to address barriers to equal educational outcomes for children.

Katie’s day-to-day duties included supporting children in breakfast and lunch clubs, attending meetings for children in need, working with children one-to-one, meeting with parents, liaising with outside agencies, supporting children at homework club and working alongside children in class.

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The researchers found that Katie’s role was ‘recognised by both parents and staff as an important resource’ as a ‘hands-on approach to problem-solving that builds trust and holds families close, enabling children to flourish and succeed in school’.

University of Chichester.University of Chichester.
University of Chichester.

The paper produced from the research, ‘It’s a struggle’ – the role of the school Health and Wellbeing Lead in supporting families in poverty, was published in May 2024, and is a collaboration between Dr Sandra Lyndon, Reader in Childhood and Social Policy at the University of Chichester, alongside Dr Carla Solvason, Senior Lecturer at the University of Worcester and Dr Rebecca Webb, a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Sussex.

Dr Lyndon said: “We heard from individuals about how the malfunctioning of something as commonplace as a cooker could be enough to tip them [families] into crisis on top of other pressures in their lives. In such situations, the early intervention, resourcefulness and signposting that Katie was able to provide was regarded as a lifeline.”

Katie told researchers: “I think a lot of our parents can’t be the parents they want to be to their kids because they’ve got debt collectors on the phone or they’re hungry … so I think it’s removing those barriers … because they are all good parents, they all love their kids.

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“Some of the parents you can kind of see it spiralling, you can almost catch it before it gets too serious.”

The researchers concluded that the Health and Wellbeing Lead role was ‘highly valued by both the parents and the staff’ at the school, and that Katie’s work made a positive impact within and beyond the school gates.

The researchers stressed the significance of ‘a non-judgemental, strengths based, and empathetic person-centred approach which created a trusting and open relationship with parents where they could both share and receive support for their ‘struggles’, without fear of being shamed or judged’.

At the same time, they tentatively reflected upon the demands of a role without clear boundaries that seemed to also have the capacity for a negative impact on the health and wellbeing lead and other staff.

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In their conclusion, researchers suggested: “In terms of wider implications whilst we welcome the government’s offer to fund training so that every state school and college in England has a senior mental health lead, there is no additional funding to support the role in settings, raising questions about the sustainability of the role.

“If the government is serious about addressing children’s mental health and wellbeing there need to be properly funded initiatives which go beyond training, and address some of the route issues around early intervention, staff retention and recruitment in children’s services and schools. If this fails to happen, the integral educational equity and justice work that those such as Katie perform in school, will continue to be the exception rather than the rule.”

Discover more research by the University of Chichester, at: www.chi.ac.uk/research