Mental health, reporting and the future of education

John Graham

The Royal Commission into Victoria’s mental health system has raised public concern about the adequacy and quality of existing mental health support and services. There is a strong sense that this is an area which for too long has been operating as the poor cousin in public health. It is seen as full of complexities, subject to misinformation and stigma, under-funded and without a political consensus about the way forward. Schools and early childhood settings are central to any considerations about what needs to be done to improve this situation because of the age of their students and because of their function as “caring for the whole student–mind, body and character—no matter how students arrive, and no matter what their learning conditions, their home conditions, or their health conditions”.1

A major theme of this edition of Professional Voice is the mental health and wellbeing of students and their teachers. Three of the articles directly relate to this theme. The first of these from Vicki McKenzie outlines the growing concern about mental illness in Australia and its incidence in school age children and young people. She describes the central role schools play in identifying and supporting students with mental health problems and in referring them to mental health services outside of the school. Schools are also seen as “an ideal venue to nurture the skills for developing positive life skills and the capacity to be resilient in face of diversity”. 

Schools however, run into a series of problems when they try to address the mental health issues of their students. McKenzie points out that not all of the professionals teachers can refer students to are equally qualified. Some, such as psychologists, are required by law to be registered and are subject to professional standards, others are not. The numbers of psychologists in schools and in state public services are too few to meet demand with the result that schools have been increasingly referring students to private practitioners. The workload of psychologists actually working in schools is such that they are unable to spend enough time working on preventative programs because of the demand for direct assessment services. One way of meeting the demand for more in-school support is to fund scholarships to increase the number of psychologists specifically trained to work in the education sector.

John Graham’s article complements that of Vicki McKenzie’s. It outlines existing research on the impact of schooling on student mental health and wellbeing, particularly in relation to high stakes testing and examinations and describes the results of a survey of 3,000 teachers, principals and education support staff employed in Victoria’s public schools. The survey results present a picture of high levels of observed characteristics related to student mental health concerns and a strong view that mental health issues are having a negative impact on student learning. The incidence and impact of mental health concerns was greater in survey schools in low SES communities and large regional centres. The survey also revealed unmet needs for school-based psychologists and a high level of dissatisfaction with access to external mental health services.

While Graham’s article is about student mental health, the AEU survey also asked school staff about their own wellbeing and mental health. The staff results were in line with a number of other recent research studies which found that teaching can be a very stressful occupation which can contribute to significant mental health difficulties for teachers and principals. As one teacher said: You can’t teach wellbeing if you aren’t feeling it yourself. Paulina Billett, Rochelle Fogelgarn and Edgar Burns from La Trobe University reinforce this claim in their study of teachers being bullied by students and parents. They describe the difficult situation bullied teachers find themselves in when an unsympathetic school management questions their professionalism and implies that the teachers themselves were to blame and the solution was for them to improve their performance.

The La Trobe study found that the bullying of teachers is more common than previously realised, with teachers in the secondary sector more often bullied by students and those in the primary sector by parents. Female teachers aged 21-30 working in the secondary sector reported the highest level of bullying. The results of bullying included increased anxiety levels, an undermining of the sense of being an effective teacher and a general professional disempowerment. For many bullied teachers the impact on their mental health was severe. The authors report that a high proportion reported “suffering symptoms of anxiety, depression and PTSD, including panic attacks and uncontrollable shaking”.

While student reports are one of the staples of schooling and of teacher work, they have not been a popular topic for education research. Hilary Hollingsworth and Jonathan Heard are seeking to remedy this through their study of how student learning is communicated to parents. What they reveal is just how complex the process of communication is and how the ‘legacy’ semester report is now under pressure through new technology systems and a realisation that reporting performance is not the same as reporting progress. School Management Systems such as Compass are moving schools away from semester reporting to what is generally referred to as ‘continuous reporting’ – communicating with parents in regular instalments rather than twice a year. The authors however, point out that more timely reporting does not necessarily mean better communication of student progress.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of commentators on education who are always worth reading is their capacity to take on the prevailing wisdom and indicate that there is a better way forward. Alan Reid, Pasi Sahlberg and James Ladwig all fall into this category. 

Alan Reid’s article is about moving ‘learning to learn’ into the centre of the curriculum in an age of “significant disruption” where the capacity to learn and re-learn is becoming ever more important. He identifies the need for further development of the learning to learn concept and a change of name to ‘meta-learning’. He opts for this name rather than ‘metacognition’ because “research demonstrate[s] that an understanding of the processes of learning involves a range of aspects such as the social, emotional, physical and sensory, which go beyond a focus on metacognition”. He emphasises that meta-learning is not to be seen as something separate from the content of what is taught or how it is taught. Rather it is integral to both and involves students in deep reflection on their learning as they work with content knowledge.

James Ladwig contends that some time ago Australian education took a disastrous wrong turn by opting for standardisation at the expense of “the fundamental linchpin in quality schooling” – the professional judgement of teachers. The current system architecture is “standardised, stratified, countable” and may meet the needs of politicians but it has shown no evidence of improving student achievement. What it has done however, is to move the intellectual work of teachers into standardised categories defined by management, thereby deskilling them. The result of this is that “what were once widespread teacher capacities in local curriculum design and development had been forfeited to (extremely well-paid) bureaucrats”. He sees the same processes in teacher education programs which “by and large no longer teach the history and practice of curriculum design, nor the philosophy and history of education”. The way forward, according to Ladwig, is for the system to concentrate on finding answers to the key improvement question: ‘how do we build systems that increase the likelihood that teachers will make intelligent and wise decisions in their work?’ 

This is the second time Professional Voice has interviewed the highly respected Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg. The first time was in 2014 on a visit to Melbourne, this time he is a resident in Australia and Deputy Director of the Gonski Institute at the University of NSW. His greater knowledge of the Australian education system has sharpened his insight into what and how we can improve what happens in our schools. He identifies three major ways in which Australian education can be improved. Firstly, the orientation of primary schools needs to be much less about the academic progress and performance of young children and much more about their happiness, wellbeing and making friends. Compared to other education jurisdictions he believes Australia is asking its children “to do too much too early”. 

One of the important things in the future will be to make sure every child learns at school how to live a healthy, meaningful and happy life, and how to take care of themselves and others. Academic knowledge and skills are important, but life skills - learning to self-control your own behaviours and understanding what is bad for you - will be the next big thing in the future.

Secondly, the system needs to clearly demonstrate that it has confidence and trust in the professional judgement of teachers and reduce the role of NAPLAN to a sample-based system check only. The third area of improvement is making the education system more equitable. Presently Australia has one of the most segregated education systems in the world with “the biggest proportion of disadvantaged children going to disadvantaged schools compared to any other country [in the OECD]”. Australia will not substantially improve student learning outcomes, until it makes the system they learn in fairer for all.

  1. NEA, Education Support Professionals: Meeting the needs of the whole student «


John Graham is editor of Professional Voice and works as a research officer at the Australian Education Union (Vic). He has been a secondary teacher, worked on national and state-based education programs and in the policy division of the Victorian Education Department. He has carried out research in a wide range of areas related to education and training. He has had particular responsibility for the many issues impacting on teachers and teaching as a profession, teacher education, curriculum change, and the politics, organisation and funding of public education. He has written extensively in various publications about all of these matters.

This article appears in Professional Voice 13.1 Mental health, reporting and education futures.

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