Mental health is key to educational efforts to rekindle social mobility

Government and the sector must put wellbeing at the heart of their work to reverse worrying trends in the health and wealth prospects of our communities

Government and the sector must put wellbeing at the heart of their work to reverse worrying trends in the health and wealth prospects of our communities

8 Jun 2024, 5:00

Recent findings from the Institute for Fiscal Studies show that social mobility is at its worst in over 50 years. Alongside alarming NHS data revealing a 50 per cent surge in mental health emergencies among children and young people over the past three years and a government study revealing an equally worrying rise in adults experiencing depressive symptoms, it paints a bleak picture of our current societal challenges.

If education is the gateway to social mobility, then this rise in poor mental health is a significant barrier. Without good mental health, students are unlikely to be focused on learning or where they want to go next. Lacking that motivation too easily leads to poor standards of work, lateness and non-attendance.

That’s why I thoroughly believe that government and education sector efforts to improve social mobility must focus on mental health and wellbeing outcomes.

This must start with challenging the misconception that social mobility means going upwards all the time. In truth, social mobility is about enabling individuals to choose their direction (including sideways or even staying still), safe in the knowledge they can move and armed with the confidence to do things differently.

Accessible and safe solutions

As educational providers, we are often powerless to address the external factors that impact learners’ mental health. However, we can provide the support and the tools they need to develop strong mental fitness and resilience.

Whether their struggles are academic or personal, and whether they would benefit from joining a club or more formal counselling, we need to support them to find the solution that works for them.

Familiarity and shared experience are often key to opening up. When I led student support at the University of Salford, we created the first integrated service of its kind, located within the student union. We overhauled the system so that our student counsellors were new graduates who looked and sounded like those seeking help.

By removing barriers where we could, we were able to create a genuinely safe and supportive space.

Social mobility superheroes

Few people experience social mobility challenges and the potential for poor mental health more than refugees. According to the Mental Health Foundation, those seeking asylum are five times more likely to have mental health needs than the general population, but much less likely to receive support.

Amid a skills crisis and government efforts to grow the economy, we can’t afford to ignore the experience, skills and resilience refugees bring with them. And yet their huge potential is often overlooked.

Through NCG’s ‘Our Community is Your Community’ initiative, we help refugees overcome the barriers they face upon arrival beyond language acquisition. From navigating local transport and setting up bank accounts and bills, to social events and access to entrepreneurial opportunities, we aim to give this community a sense of purpose and confidence.

As well as the technical English that allows them to share their skills and make a purposeful contribution to their new communities, these are crucial to their mental health and their social mobility.

Taking support to the next level

More broadly though, we need to do much better than guessing at what our learners need from us. Reinventing the wheel in every college is a highly inefficient way to proceed.

That’s why we have partnered with Activate Learning and signed up to be part of the largest college-based Randomised Controlled Trial (RCT) of its kind. Using a mobile mental health app called eQuoo, developed by PsycApps Ltd, the trial launched in February with a sample size exceeding 8,000 students across both college groups and focuses on the mental health issues that contribute to non-attendance, drop-out rates, behaviour and academic struggles. 

Participating in this research will support the creation of an evidence base which will tell us what does and doesn’t work. More than that, sharing those outcomes will better inform policy makers, the health system and industry.

My hope is this will result in positive change, not least in terms of how things are funded. Ultimately, getting this right is key to mental health and educational outcomes – and therefore to social mobility.

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