Children in red and black school uniforms jump in the air

Children's mental health

Our vision for safe, nurturing schools for every child

Children’s mental health Portfolio Manager Julika Niehaus shares our approach and ambition to boldly change the school system, alongside incredible school partners in Lambeth and Southwark.

Last week, the Centre for Mental Health and The Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition published ‘Not in school: the mental health barriers to attendance’. This report shows, among other things, the huge impact poverty and racism are having on children’s mental health, which in turn negatively impacts school attendance rates.

As the report highlights, ‘(t)he persistence of attendance issues may speak to a wider discontent with the education system, with more students expressing the desire for an education that reflects their diversity and the challenges of modern childhoods (Edge Foundation, 2021).’

To us, this is key: Not only do experiences like chronic poverty or racism impact children’s mental health, but key environments where children spend time need to be transformed so that they are protective, nurturing and safe rather than, at worst, causing or exacerbating distress and trauma.

Through our children’s mental health programme (which is a proud member of The Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition), we work with partners across Lambeth and Southwark whose work seeks to make the spaces where children spend time safer and more nurturing for all young people. An obvious focus for us as part of this are mainstream primary schools.

We’re lucky to be partnering with schools and community organisations who are working to offer much-needed support now, whilst at the same time seeking to transform the systems and spaces that have the potential to do important reparative and preventative work. This reparation and bold rethinking of what schools can be for children is crucial because we know that currently, often inadvertently, they’re doing harm – particularly to the most marginalised children and families. In the school space, we therefore work with partners who are looking to fix the system, not the child.

I don’t want to leave any doubts: I recognise the immense pressure school communities are under in these challenging times, and the incredible efforts members of staff, volunteers, parents, carers and students are going to individually and collectively. They’re going above and beyond to support one another. I believe, however, that it is vital that we don’t let this acknowledgement and recognition stop us from holding ourselves and each other to account and using everything at our disposal to create school environments where all children feel nurtured and a deep and unquestionable sense of belonging.

This is no mean feat in the context so clearly laid out in ‘Not in school’: schools are increasingly acting as ‘the 4th emergency service’ in communities, following years of austerity and dismantling of community-based support for children, young people and families. A focus on equitable school environments that foster an expansive education is also not something that is currently sufficiently incentivised or funded by our government.

Children playing ball in school playground
Two children laughing on playground bridge

Our partners

Here’s how and where some of our partners are exploring and working towards systems change:

  • Oval Learning works across ~40 schools in the Oval, Brixton and Windmill areas of Lambeth, including to support whole schools approaches to mental health and wellbeing. This includes helping schools that are looking to do even more to respond to their communities’ needs for support – often linked to a lack of safe housing or insufficient resources for food or school uniforms. This speaks to a gap in the system and the fact that we cannot expect children to attend and do well in school if their or their families’ needs aren’t met. As articulated so clearly by the Centre for Young Lives, there’s an opportunity for the next government to address child poverty by investing in schools as anchor institutions , particularly in areas where children, young people and families don’t receive their share of our society’s resources.
  • Class 13, is a Black-led Brixton-based organisation that works with teachers, parents and young people so that they can together transform school environments into equitable spaces. Central to this is Class 13’s approach of prioritising affirming practices that let young people know they are inherently valuable, having community-focused practices that seek to build relationships with parents, and producing proactive (rather than punitive) behaviour strategies. Together, these reduce the stress on teachers and the weight of the inequity-filled school bag from the most vulnerable young people. Through their work, Class 13 seeks to improve the mental health and wellbeing of young people, address the exclusion rate and its disproportionality and improve teacher retention – three central challenges for schools right now, and which we believe need to be priorities for school environments that are safe and nurturing for all children.
  • We also fund Global Black Maternal Health whose Black Child SEND report sheds light on the experiences of Black and mixed heritage children with Special Educational Needs or Disabilities (SEND) in South London. The report identified a critical gap in support for these children and calls for greater commitment to cross-agency working, a focus on practitioners’ cultural competency, as well as investment in parental mental health, rights and entitlements. The report underscores the urgent need for targeted interventions to address the inequities and barriers faced by Black and mixed heritage children with SEND and their families. And whilst there’s undoubtedly a space for special schools, we also need to invest in our mainstream schools to be equipped so that all children, including those with SEND, can feel safe and a sense of belonging while being supported to reach their potential.
  • Through Big Education and Surrey Square Primary School in Southwark we also support the Old Kent Road Family Zone – a community-led initiative that aims to create the conditions for children and families living in the area to thrive. Designed and led by children and parents, this initiative celebrates and builds on local community assets and co-creates solutions such as a monthly Marketplace where ~350 visitors come together and enjoy a free warm meal amidst a whole host of other offers. This vital work proves the power of taking a whole community approach to mental health, working to re-imagine a future for the area, and co-creating an environment that feels more nurturing, supportive, and safe for all children and families.

We’re excited to now focus on exploring how we can scale the excellent work of our partners so that more school communities can benefit from it, and look forward to working increasingly with other funders, our local authorities, GLA and SEL ICB to achieve this. Please reach out if our partners’ work and our plans for the future intrigue you. We’re actively looking for co-conspirators in the form of co-funders, policy advocates and other bold changemakers.

Julika Niehaus

Find out more

If you'd like to get involved, or to learn more:

Get in touch with Julika Read the 'Not in school' report