This website uses cookies for anonymised analytics and for account authentication. See our privacy and cookies policies for more information.

The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

TFN is published by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Mansfield Traquair Centre, 15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh, EH3 6BB. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) is a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation. Registration number SC003558.

Creating mentally healthy schools 

This opinion piece is 10 months old

Martin Crewe says we need to create positive learning spaces where relationships can be nurtured and learning enhanced

How do we create mentally healthy schools? The first thing that comes to mind is the old anecdote about asking for directions in rural Ireland: “well, I wouldn’t start from here”. 

There are so many things we need to improve before children even get to the school gates. The key ones are: tackling child poverty; providing holistic family support; and improving access to early mental health support. I could write at length about each of these, but the focus of this blog is on schools. 

Barnardo’s Scotland works directly with more than 400 schools and we have educational links to 400 more. This breadth of experience means that we can talk with some confidence about the benefits of taking a whole-school approach to mental health. To provide examples: 

  • Barnardo’s holds the UK licence for The PATHS® Programme for Schools (UK & NI Version) – an internationally recognised evidence-based whole-school programme that explicitly teaches social and emotional skills including self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. We have supported the implementation of this programme in school settings across the UK. 
  • We have undertaken research with the Scottish Government and developed bespoke commissioned work for Education Scotland that supports the wellbeing of education leaders and their teams. This work has been further developed and delivered in partnership with whole-school staff teams to embed health and wellbeing at the heart of their practice. 
  • We worked with Public Health Scotland to produce a film that was published in 2020: ‘It’s All About Relationships: Embedding relational, trauma sensitive approaches in education settings'. The film highlights practical examples and tips for education staff to support positive relationships with young people. This is just one example of the Barnardo’s Education Community mental health and wellbeing resources which can be accessed at

We like to describe our work in schools in terms of a pyramid. At the base we provide universal activities that build a community of support for pupils and those around the school. Further up the pyramid, we deliver targeted support to individuals and groups around key themes such as attendance, anxiety, transitions and school avoidance. 

At the apex of the pyramid is intensive support for children and families that is bespoke to need – this could include trauma, bereavement and loss, child exploitation and neurodiversity (and is made possible by the breadth of experience and expertise of Barnardo’s services). Underpinning the whole pyramid is workforce capacity and wellbeing. 

A recent snapshot survey of Barnardo’s frontline workers found that there were multiple reasons why children might not be accessing full time education. Principal among these were mental health and social issues. What wasn’t highlighted was exclusions from school, bullying or issues between home and school. 

This bears out our lived experience of working in partnership with many schools across Scotland, which we know are full of nurturing individuals who are doing their best for our children, but the overall education system itself is not necessarily designed to be a nurturing one. If we are to create mentally healthy schools, this has to change. 

Constant cuts in public sector funding are unhelpful both in terms of the limitations they place and the sense of uncertainty they create. We should never forget that educational attainment can be a key route out of poverty. But to achieve this we must support families to enable their children to be in a place to learn. 

Far too many families are struggling financially and this can have a profound impact on children’s mental health. We need to create positive learning spaces in our schools where relationships can be nurtured and learning enhanced. 

Martin Crewe is director of Barnardo’s Scotland.