Short Debate: Wales’s whole school approach: Supporting all children to flourish, learn and succeed in schools

Diolch, Llywydd. I’ve agreed to give a minute in this debate to Mark Isherwood, Jack Sargeant, Hefin David and John Griffiths. The emotional and mental well-being of young people is a challenge, and that has come to the forefront in recent times. It has been recognised by politicians, parents, teachers and by young people themselves. It was telling that so many of the young people who stood for the Youth Parliament made this their priority. Young people today have more information at their fingertips than any other previous generation, but face greater challenges on the social, emotional side of growing up. It’s our responsibility to listen and act. Adverse childhood experiences can have a significant detrimental impact on the life chances and attainment of young people. In 2015, research by Public Health Wales found that 47 per cent of the Welsh population had experienced at least one ACE before the age of 18, and 14 per cent four or more. Attitudes, beliefs and behaviours learnt during these very early years are often carried into adulthood, and it’s imperative that we do all we can to support and nurture children. If we get things right early on, there is an ever-growing mountain of evidence to show that this will have a positive impact on not only the individual, but on society as a whole.

A mentally healthy school sees positive mental health and well-being as fundamental to its values. Emotional health and well-being cannot be confined to just lessons. It must be part of the very ethos of the whole-school approach. I’m proud to say that there’s been some really positive progress on this subject through the Assembly and through the determination of my colleague Lynne Neagle. Lynne has been a passionate advocate of improving the mental and emotional well-being of our children and young people, and has been a strong advocate for a whole-school approach. I’d like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Lynne’s work and the Children, Young People and Education Committee. The CYPE committee produced a clear, evidence-based report, ‘Mind over Matter’, which sets challenges to Welsh Government. ‘Mind over Matter’ found broad consensus that school settings are key to promoting emotional well-being and good mental health, that the preventative approach needs to be embedded within the ethos of a school, not just the lessons taught, and that teachers are not solely responsible, but it requires joint working between professionals from across sectors—health, education, social care, third sector and youth work are key.

I’m very pleased to say that, in my constituency of Newport West, you do not have to look too far to find examples of schools that are trying to embrace these very principles—schools that are doing excellent work on nurturing our children and young people, and trying innovative ways to put student well-being at the heart of everything they do. Millbrook Primary School in Bettws is a school that has embraced the whole-school approach, and is doing it well. To give some background, Bettws is a community of 8,000 people. It’s an area with high levels of deprivation, with six lower super output areas on the estate.

The leadership team at Millbrook primary have been researching approaches to improve the life chances and attainment of children for many years. They’ve looked for good practice locally, nationally, and internationally. Their motto is ‘Learning about caring, caring about learning’, and their mission is to make a positive difference to the lives of the young people that they work with. To be the most effective, they aim to engage with children and their families from a very early age. The philosophy at Millbrook is that happy children learn. They feel passionately that it takes a whole village to raise a child, and believe that, by nurturing families, and the community, it provides young people with the very best opportunity to achieve. The school ethos is to be outward-looking. They encourage children and families to share cultures, and to broaden horizons. The school has an onsite Confucius classroom, and they teach Mandarin.

Working closely with Newport City Council, and other key partners, they’ve developed a multi-agency approach, piloting the Welsh Government’s Children First initiative, a place-based approach to reduce inequalities and to mitigate the impact of adverse childhood experiences. Earlier this year, I had the privilege of visiting the school, alongside the Deputy Minister for Health and Social Services, Julie Morgan, and we saw first hand the way that this worked, and you really couldn’t fail to be impressed. Since this has been established, they’ve seen a significant reduction in the numbers of children on the child protection register. The most influential factor for this is the way in which agencies work together. Every relationship formed is based on the difference that it could make to the community, and to the young person’s life. It has meant that these partnerships are no longer random acts of support, but carefully thought out and planned.

Millbrook’s inspirational headteacher, Lindsey Watkins, says that the hope is that, when someone comes to the school, they feel welcomed, and that permeates throughout the building, so that all agencies are seen as one seamless team. One of the assets in Millbrook is a dedicated family room. It allows the school to provide a well-being cafe and mindfulness courses for families. The room also allows family access to other agencies on an informal basis, which helps build relationships and trust between agencies and families. For example, some families have self-referred into the prevention team. In addition, the school offers a range of family learning programmes and family activities that support well-being.

Millbrook prides itself on providing a bespoke package of well-being support for children and families across the school. This includes emotional literacy support and a range of nurture and welfare programmes. These are used to provide early intervention, especially when a child has faced trauma in their life. One young person who experienced trauma gave their experience—and I quote: ‘While we all have bumps in the road at some time, I had a bump in the road when my parents split up and my mum was very ill. I was so upset, I used to come to school and cry. But it was okay, because I was able to talk to Miss. Every morning, when I came in upset, she would make me a drink, we would sit and have a chat, and I felt better. I’m okay now, but I know, if I ever needed her, then she would be there for me.’

Millbrook’s partnership work has also seen bonds form with another Children First pioneer school in Newport West, Pillgwenlly Primary School. The programme focuses on two schools, in two communities, with one approach. Both schools involved have researched ways of building resilience in the two communities, and the children have been at the heart of that work. Working with organisations like Barnardo’s Cymru and Save the Children Cymru, groups of pupils from Millbrook and from Pillgwenlly have worked together to learn how to conduct their own community consultation plans. Children are being empowered and they are learning about the rights of a child, democracy and citizenship, working with the community to effect positive change.

Pillgwenlly primary has also become a sector-leading primary school in nurture provision, and I was pleased to join the education Minister visiting Pillgwenlly primary to see this in practice. Nurture supports the most disadvantaged pupils and is specifically recommended by Estyn as a support approach for looked-after children. The charity nurtureuk are celebrating their fiftieth anniversary in 2019, and I’m glad to see that they’re supporting 40 schools in Wales with their nurturing programme. Pillgwenlly opened its first nurture room in 2004. This provides a place where children can learn in a nurture setting and their parents can join them for part of the week. All pupils have a base class, but attend the family nurture room for over half of their week. They learn alongside their parents for 10 per cent to 20 per cent of their time, and Pilgwenlly’s stated priority is

‘to enable our children to form attachments with others, to make the right choices and to understand why they make these choices—to be resilient and reflective.’

Another school that’s just started doing this is Malpas Court Primary School. They have been on the national nurturing schools programme for one year and the school opened a new nurture room in September for the pupils in need of the most support. Within three weeks, the school said that they’ve already seen the impact that the nurture room has had to support children and make them feel safe. Pilgwenlly and Malpas Court’s experience of the benefits of this approach are similar to that of Millbrook. They say that this works most effectively when the school as a whole community is committed to maximising the social and educational engagement of all, and when nurture groups are positively contributing and effecting whole-school culture and practices, facilitating a more nurturing environment throughout the school.

I’ve been incredibly impressed and heartened by the work of these schools in my constituency and I would encourage all Assembly Members, if they haven’t already, to go and see a school that has adopted a whole-school approach in their area. A whole-school approach cannot be led by the schools alone. The ‘Mind over matter’ report concludes that

‘it is crucial to develop a whole-school approach, embedding well-being into the entire school ethos, the curriculum, and staff training and professional development. A substantial step change is needed to realise this ambition.’

We have a great opportunity and we must lead on this. I know that, following the committee’s report, a joint ministerial task and finish group was established to accelerate this work. I thank the Minister for her work on this and hope that progress is being made at pace. Millbrook, Malpas Court and Pillgwenlly primaries are shining examples. I look forward to a time when all Welsh children are able to benefit from the whole-school approach.