How one specialist school is hoping to change the world’s approach to mental health

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Cheryl Smith describes the background and work of the LightBulb programme, established to share professional experience in children’s mental health

“Mental illness, especially in young people, is on the rise and when you see how distressing it can be, you know you’ve got to do everything you can to help prevent it from happening in the first place,” says Cheryl Smith, Headteacher of St Andrew’s College.

The school, which specialises in providing trauma informed approaches, is located on the Northampton site of the psychiatric hospital St Andrew’s Healthcare. Much of the work the school does is based on the Activ8 curriculum, which aligns with the National Curriculum, but it is taught in a more bespoke way to enable learners to feel safe and make progress as part of their recovery journey.

But for Cheryl, having worked in mental health for over 20 years, and having become Headteacher of the college 18 months ago, she instinctively knew she had to do everything in her power to reduce the chances of children requiring such a drastic intervention as being sectioned under the Mental Health Act.

“At St Andrew’s we care for some very poorly young people who have often not received the help they needed until it was too late,” Cheryl explains.

“By the time they come to us many of them have lost hope, and are struggling to see the value in living, let alone trying to get an education,” she says.

“It is a worrying situation and schools can play an invaluable role in recognising and supporting mental wellbeing which is paramount to ensuring young people have access to the best support when it is most needed.”

That is when Cheryl had a ‘lightbulb’ moment. She decided to reach out to other schools and provide them with the insight and understanding that her specialist team has acquired over many years.

“As a team, we wanted to find a way to pinpoint young people and to help equip schools with the skills they need to be resilient and to seek help about mental health issues, hopefully reducing the distress they experience and positively impacting the outcomes they experience,” she says.

“We believe early intervention is essential and can make a huge difference to the wellbeing of those children who are experiencing mental health issues.” Together, with friend and colleague Peter Rainford, they developed the LightBulb programme which provides schools that sign up with a whole range of support, including five hours of mental health awareness and training for all school staff and wellbeing resources and activities for teachers and educational professionals.

“LightBulb is not just about helping children, parents and teachers to recognise the signs early on, it’s also about creating a culture of positive mental health which is driven by school leaders and embedded in practice,” Cheryl says. “We firmly believe that this approach could significantly reduce the number of children who go on to develop more complex mental health problems, but will also encourage their development of resilience, coping skills and self-help skills which are vital for overall development.”

The programme is based around an outcomes wheel which puts the school at the centre, surrounded by four sections. They are ‘Quality of Education’, ‘Behaviour and Attitudes’,

‘Personal Development’ and ‘Leadership and Management’ in line with the Ofsted school inspection framework. “We wanted to provide a ready-made framework for both primary and secondary schools, so those that participate can demonstrate and showcase excellence regarding mental health practice to regulatory bodies such as Ofsted,” Cheryl explains. The scheme has been piloted in one primary school, Castle Academy in Northampton, where staff say it has made a huge difference.

“We have children from all walks of life attend Castle Academy and from time to time school life can become a bit much,” says Ellie Finch, who is Castle Academy’s Mental Health Lead.

“We’ve introduced Calm Corners into every classroom so our students have a quiet place to go during lessons. At playtime they have access to ‘Hobbit Holes’ which provide children with a safe space to go, away from the hustle and bustle of the playground. We’ve also placed Worry Monster post-boxes all over the school so our children can post their concerns any time they wish and an adult will follow it up.

“Working with St Andrew’s gave us the confirmation that we were on the right track to support and build on the children’s mental health and wellbeing using strategies that we had in place.” In fact, the programme has been so successful that it is now being rolled out across the rest of the East Midlands Academy Trust (EMAT).

“Lockdown, school closures, disruptive home environments and disturbing news stories have all played a part in affecting our children’s mental health,” says EMAT’s Head of Inclusion, Lorna Beard.

“Now is the time to start taking action and putting interventions in place to help them, before it’s too late. “LightBulb was a hit from the start and helped us to build on the work already happening within the school around mental health. We quickly saw significant improvements across our staff, students and parents. Everyone felt more supported, reassured and more confident in spotting the signs and seeking the appropriate help. “Having seen first-hand the difference LightBulb has made I can confidently say it’s changed children’s lives and will go a very long way in providing the building blocks for openly talking about worries and concerns which if left, could have devastating outcomes in the long-term.”

Cheryl Smith
Author: Cheryl Smith

Cheryl Smith
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Cheryl Smith is Headteacher of St Andrew’s College. It is uniquely located on the top floor of the Child and Adolescent Mental Health service ward, within the Northampton grounds of St Andrew’s Healthcare psychiatric hospital.

She has more than 25 years’ experience working in education, but has only been in this role for 18 months.  

The College caters for children aged between 13 to 18 years old who have been sectioned under the Mental Health Act to receive treatment for their mental health.

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