In search of an effective way to teach young people with mental health problems

Jun 9, 2017

Oxfordshire Hospital School’s Hill End Initiative

A pledge by the Prime Minister in January this year to provide Mental Health Training for secondary schools, and the announcement of a review of mental health in schools led by Mind Chief Executive Paul Farmer and mental health campaigner Lord Stephenson have brought this important area of child health and wellbeing under the spotlight. But what can be done when pupils’ mental health problems go beyond the capacity of the professionals within the school?

In Oxfordshire, a groundbreaking initiative to deliver academic and social education in outdoor settings for young people with some of the most serious mental health problems is entering its second year.

According to its pioneers at Oxfordshire Hospital School (OHS) and teachers at the schools it partners with, the programme is transforming the chances of its students becoming happy, fully-engaged members of society.

Tailored education in outdoor settings

Oxfordshire Hospital School (OHS) provides education for young people who are too unwell to attend their normal schools. As well as teaching children and young people across the county’s in-patient hospital wards, the organisation also works in partnership with schools to identify and support young people affected by mental health problems. In March 2016, the school launched a programme of tailored education for small groups of young people at the Hill End Outdoor Education Centre just outside Oxford.

In 65 acres of beautiful Oxfordshire countryside, Key Stage 3 and 4 students study a range of courses taught by experienced teachers in a cosy classroom built of mud and straw and a light and airy purpose-built study centre. But alongside the conventional lessons that ensure these young people, many of whom are destined for top grades, achieve their academic potential, the programme places great emphasis on developing self-esteem, confidence and social skills.

OHS Outreach Teacher Claire Wilks is the innovator and developer behind the initiative. When the agreement on the school’s previous classroom facilities came to an end, she seized the opportunity to revolutionise the way it delivered lessons. She believes teaching concepts pioneered by the forest school model are essential in transforming the way students feel about education and developing their ability to cope in everyday situations.

Learning to cope with everyday life

“When mainstream school doesn’t work out, young people with mental health problems commonly become isolated,” explains Claire Wilks.

“Most spend lots of time on their own, often in their bedrooms. Feelings akin to agoraphobia can flourish in these circumstances, and encouraging them back into a school community becomes extremely difficult.

“Our goal is to get them back into mainstream school, but getting them there has to be a staged process. And reintegration shouldn’t only be about getting them back into school – above all it’s about getting them back into everyday life.

“The Hill End initiative allows us to build communities where students feel safe and happy in the company of others. Hosting this community at Hill End is crucial, because there are other facilities here that enhance their education.”

A pioneering approach

“We’re not a replacement for school, but we are providing an extremely important education to some of the most profoundly affected young people in our county,” explains Angela Ransby, headteacher of OHS, which works closely with schools across Oxfordshire to support their policies around mental health and offer the programme to those young people who cannot attend school.

“Many of the young people we work with are living with anxiety disorders. Some are struggling with agoraphobia and post traumatic stress disorder. These kids want to do well, but find it too difficult to attend mainstream school full-time, or even part-time in many cases.”

In the past, these young people would typically have been taught at home by outreach teachers. But Angela Ransby believes there are fundamental drawbacks to teaching them on their own.

“Teaching these young people at home, in isolation, is just about academics. We need to equip them for real life, with the tools to live as secure members of society.

“At Hill End, everything we do is designed to build their internal capacity to cope with everyday challenges; to become active participants in the choices they make.

“Learning outside the classroom gives us far more opportunities to build their sense of self. Experiences like these have an enduring impact.”

Positive challenge

At Hill End the OHS offers a wide-ranging alternative curriculum that is designed around each student’s individual needs – a mix of core subjects are taught in innovative ways and embrace outdoor learning, including den building, ball games and fieldwork.

“We’re giving them so many skills – academic, social, personal development, and the ability to manage their own behaviour,” explains Claire Wilks.

“We know these young people need a wider social group to practice with, in order to develop their social skills. One of the skills we develop is social eating – something that many of the young people we work with find extremely difficult. Cooking together and sharing food around a campfire is a brilliant way to build self-confidence and self-esteem.

“The impact can be very powerful. Ultimately, and in many cases, we’re giving these young people their lives back.”

Partnering with schools

The OHS accepts referrals from all schools in Oxfordshire.

Andy Jarrett, Assistant Headteacher at the Henry Box School in Witney, Oxfordshire, explains how the initiative is helping those young people most severely affected by mental health problems.

“As well as helping them to achieve their academic potential, the OHS’s Hill End programme offers a dynamic education that is transforming the chances of these students becoming happy, fully-engaged members of society.

“The school environment can feel like an exceptionally busy and daunting place. For young people with profound anxiety, being here can simply be impossible.

“Our students have found the forest school aspect of the programme quite challenging – for some the rural setting is unfamiliar and the space overwhelming – but in a small group, and with the constant support of OHS teachers, it’s a positive challenge that they have been able to overcome.

“The results speak for themselves – we’re already talking about sixth form college places and apprenticeships with our students who attend the programme.  They feel normal, accepted and achieving, and that’s incredibly positive and empowering.”

Caroline Skerten is Assistant Headteacher at the Burford School. She agrees that using forest school methods has been pivotal in changing the way young people with mental health problems feel about themselves and their ability to cope in everyday situations.

“The forest school concept is quite a challenging one for these young people to accept and engage with, but that’s what makes the programme so effective.

“It really is a revolutionary approach to teaching that encourages them to make physical, mental and social achievements alongside other young people who share their fears. They get a tangible sense that they are getting better, that they are achieving, and at the same time they are learning to associate education with positive experiences.”