Well-being as part of education may seem like a new concept to most, but for Harrogate Ladies’ College it has been a basic necessity for many years.

Harrogate Ladies College #dailycalm
An inspiring poster at Harrogate Ladies’ College

Ahead of their time

At the beginning of this year, the government approved a two-year plan to bring mindfulness into schools and educate children about mental health care. Education Secretary Damian Hinds announced that “up to 370 schools in England will take part in a series of trials testing different approaches to supporting young people’s mental health”.

Harrogate Ladies’ College had already identified this urgent need and went the extra mile and actually built its own Wellness Centre in 2018.

Gardens in front of the Wellness Centre at Harrogate Ladies College
Gardens in front of the Wellness Centre at Harrogate Ladies’ College

Perhaps you are picturing the pupils sitting cross-legged with their eyes closed chanting “om”. Well it’s not quite like that, although meditation does figure in their scheme. The school will be implementing the practice of “health and wellbeing” such as mindfulness and self care, as a compulsory part of its PSHE curriculum come September. Over the last year, personal wellness has been woven into every part of school life, from walking an adorable cockapoo to meditation during form time.

There are not many other schools in the UK who have dedicated so much time and energy to this area. One such school Assistant Director of Wellness Laura Brookes believes is worth mentioning is Lessness Heath Primary School in Kent. They have won the Optimus Education Award for Well-being and have seen endless positive effects since placing well-being at the heart of everything they do. Other than that, the main drive behind schools in the UK seems to be targets and budgets as opposed to fulfilment and wellness.

Promoting emotional well-being and a positive attitude to mental health

Richard Farnan, Wellness Director at Harrogate Ladies’ College, approaches mental health in much the same way as we would our physical health. This approach is encouraged at the school with the aim of removing the stigma usually attached to this topic. Looking after our minds should not be a taboo subject tainted with shame and obscured by misconceptions. At Harrogate Ladies’ College they incorporate activities such as meditation and yoga to cultivate a broader understanding and acceptance among pupils.

This pioneering step is more than just an ambitious experiment; today the school sees the teaching of well-being as equipping children with essential “life skills” in an-ever-changing world. Alongside subjects such as maths, science and literature, the students follow a meditative practice program, “failure” workshops to build resilience and mental first aid training, to name a few, under the guidance of therapists and experts.

A calm setting at the Harrogate Ladies College Wellness Centre
Calming images in the waiting room

Mindfulness: what it means in the digital age

The mindfulness technique, started in the 70s in America, is a style of meditation focused on the breath and on the awareness of the present moment that combines Buddhist teachings with modern cognitive therapy practices. Its benefits on physical and mental health are now increasingly known and recognised: in addition to improving mental health, the main reason for which it was developed, there are positive effects on the immune system and reducing anxiety. Something sorely needed in our exam-focused schools.

The idea of guiding children on such a path was born as a result of the worrying statistics published by the National Health Service. According to these findings, in 2017, one child out of every eight in England suffered from mental problems, particularly anxiety and depression, with a worrying percentage of 11.2% in the age group between 5 and 15 years. In a developmental phase as critical as that experienced at primary schools, and in a society where problems such as bullying and cyberbullying are increasingly felt, educating children in well-being and happiness in a conscious and natural way seems to be a sensible choice – not to mention far-sighted. Lack of action may well result in our children becoming increasingly detached from society and even their own emotions through their increased screen time, passive entertainment and virtual relationships.

Wellness: nurturing a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being

If we do not put the mental health of children first, the problems we see in the school grounds, out on the streets and in our homes, will only get worse. Harrogate Ladies’ College’s new Wellness Centre is a bricks and mortar testament to just how important this subject is for them. Physical proof that the school’s ethos is one of both learning and engendering a love of life – starting with an understanding and acceptance of the self:

Harrogate Ladies’ College motto:

I am me

A fundamental pillar to personal well-being – living in alignment with one’s true self.

A program that teaches children to take care of their mental health as they would their physical health, being more self-aware and mindful is particularly useful for increasing resilience and keeping anxiety and depression under control. It makes for a more fruitful and prosperous society as well.

Can the effects of improved well-being be measured?

In some senses the government is playing catch-up with the trend already set by the likes of Harrogate Ladies’ College. Perhaps there can be an exchange of best practice. The government’s program will run until 2021 and aims to provide schools with “evidence” about what works best for their students’ mental health and well-being. This “measuring” of the results is not so straightforward in a school with under 300 pupils, such as Harrogate Ladies’ College. Nonetheless there have already been signs of the positive effects of this shift of focus on wellness: Mollie, the first ever Wellness Prefect, states that she has already found huge personal benefits from the school’s open and nurturing environment. And she has every intention of helping her fellow pupils to overcome anxiety, misunderstandings and stress.

The government’s objectives are more “regimental” and prescriptive, focussing on monitoring which approaches work best for the mental health of young people. We are a results-driven society, so this should come as no surprise. This does not detract from the fact that the move is a welcome change in a world where children are exposed to increasing stress.

The role of wellness at schools in the future

Some schools may struggle or resist to prioritise well-being. Perhaps they would be more likely to listen if we were to say that improved mental health and emotional skills can reduce bullying, help with bad behaviour in the classroom and improve a child’s academic success… or simply by seeing the positive results at Harrogate Ladies’ College. Let’s hope there is a high uptake throughout the country in replicating Harrogate Ladies’ College’s measures of introducing children to the concept of mental health gradually and effectively.

Wellness Suite

I take my hat off to HLC as they lead the way in promoting well-being and forging resilient individuals on their first steps to a happy and fulfilling life. They are a fantastic role model to the entire community, going so far as to even offer the use of their wellness suite free of charge to local organisations. A real gesture of community wellness. I must add them to my list of local Wellness Warriors!

Harrogate Ladies’ College Wellness Suite

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