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Mindfulness in Schools

Volume 614: debated on Tuesday 6 September 2016

[Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered mindfulness in schools.

It is, as always, a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. It is good to be able to highlight the work of those bringing mindfulness training into UK schools. I pay tribute to all those supporting the ongoing work of the all-party parliamentary group on mindfulness. In particular, I pay tribute to the enthusiasm and passion of our former colleague, Chris Ruane, who continues to be an outstanding ambassador for mindfulness.

Childhood is a time for acquiring life skills alongside academic knowledge. Good schools teach young people how to keep their bodies fit, and encourage regular exercise and a healthy diet to promote good physical health throughout life, but mental health is equally important to a child’s long-term wellbeing, academic success, behaviour and eventual life outcomes. The training of attention is a foundation on which the cultivation of good mental health rests. A growing body of scientific evidence shows the benefits of mindfulness to resilience, concentration and the relief of anxiety. An evidence-based approach to mental wellbeing should have a vital part to play in the way we prepare our children for life. It makes sense, therefore, for mindfulness to be taught more widely in our schools.

In my professional and personal life, I am aware of the need to be present, focused and grounded to face all that life and work throws at us—at the moment, that is quite a lot. I am one of about 130 MPs and peers who have taken a mindfulness course in Parliament in the past three and a half years. Like many of my colleagues, I found the course compelling, with personal benefits for everyday life.

Abundant research shows that attention is fundamental to mental functioning. The eight-week mindfulness course undertaken by parliamentarians taught us how to train our attention to remain more focused and engaged in the experience of the present moment. By steadying one’s attention in that way, one can learn to respond in more clear-headed, versatile and creative ways to daily choices and challenges, instead of being driven by habit and impulse. Those simple, accessible mental skills can be taught to everyone, but, as with so many things, the most effective time to learn is during childhood.

Children and young people are under tremendous pressure in today’s society. According to Government figures given to the all-party parliamentary group, 32.3% of 15 to 25-year-olds suffer one or more mental health difficulty, and 11% suffer mild, medium or severe forms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Only last week, the Children’s Society published disturbing evidence in its annual “Good Childhood Report” that levels of unhappiness are rising among 10 to 15-year-olds. It called for more mental health and wellbeing support to be made available in schools to tackle low wellbeing early. Mindfulness has a role there.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He rightly talks about the level of the alarming mental health crisis. Some 10% of children experience mental health issues between the ages of five and 16, and half of those who experience mental health issues as children go on to experience them as adults. Given the scale of the problem, does he agree that there is a real urgency to innovate?

My hon. Friend is absolutely on the money. If this issue can be tackled in childhood, it will be less of a problem in adulthood. At the moment, the picture in adulthood is not very pretty either. The use of antidepressants among adults has increased by 500% in the past 20 years in the UK. The World Health Organisation states that by 2030, the biggest health burden on the planet will be mental ill-health. Many factors have been suggested as explanations of the apparently massive increase in mental ill-health among the young, including family breakdown, school-related stress, bullying, cyber-bullying, information overload, watching too much TV and digital technology rewiring our very brains.

Mind with Heart, which runs teacher-training workshops on mindfulness, has shown that teaching children mindfulness helps to reduce bullying, which is a significant contributor to youth depression, anxiety and suicidal tendencies. Much of that stress and mental ill-health can be avoided or alleviated. The possibility of prevention or effective management is greatly increased if skills for managing one’s mind through life’s challenges are learned early. That is why it is vital that schools and colleges play their full part, not only in spotting and addressing mental ill-health, but in teaching the basic life skills of good mental health. A growing body of research suggests that mindfulness could have a foundational role to play in providing evidence-based mental training for children and young people.

Following the publication of more than 50 promising pilot studies, the Wellcome Trust is currently funding a £7 million research project into the effects of mindfulness training on pupils aged 11 to 18, led by Oxford University. It is likely to confirm and strengthen the existing scientific evidence base for the adoption of mindfulness education programmes in schools around the world. Staff from the Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice at Bangor University have introduced a curriculum for seven to 11-year-olds and are developing a course for three to seven-year-olds. The university is also researching the impact of mindful parenting programmes.

One of the fathers of modern psychology, William James, said in the 1890s that,

“the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. No-one is”

master of himself

“if he have it not. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence. But it is easier to define this ideal than to give practical directions for bringing it about.”

The courses and curriculums I mentioned not only define but deliver that ideal. There is promising evidence that mindfulness training enhances executive control and emotional regulation in children and adolescents, in line with adult research. Those crucial contributors to self-regulation underpin not only emotional wellbeing but effective learning and academic attainment.

Research highlighted by the prominent American psychologist, Daniel Goleman, show those capabilities to be the biggest determinants of life’s outcome. They improve concentration, response to stress and meta-cognition, all of which are crucial skills for learning. They support effective decision making and creativity. In other words, the soft skills are the foundation of the hard skills.

Does my hon. Friend agree that those soft skills also provide a brake between thought and action? In the case of self-harming, which seems to be increasing exponentially, they are an important brake on action and on injuring oneself—particularly for girls. Some of our schools are becoming the biggest procurers of mental health services outside the NHS.

My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. The opportunity for reflection, attention, thought and pause is encouraged through mindfulness training.

At the launch of our all-party group, it was wonderful to see 10-year-olds and teenagers showing an impressive understanding of the workings of the brain, demonstrating absolutely the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). They knew about the role of the tiny reptilian part of the brain, the amygdala, which hijacks higher psychological functions such as kindness, creativity and compassion; they spoke about practising regular mindfulness meditation in order to remain anchored in the present, rather than being swept away by strong emotion; and they explained the difference that such training made to their lives, with the ability to make considered responses, rather than being the victim of impulsive reaction—in many ways, exactly the point made by my hon. Friend.

To back up my hon. Friends, I should say that many hon. Members, including me, have visited mindfulness programmes in our constituencies. I was struck by how highly the programmes were talked of by people, and by how enthusiastic they were about them and the techniques. Does my hon. Friend agree that we would welcome hearing from the Minister that he is willing to visit some such programmes?

That is a very good idea. I suspect that the Minister will be delighted to seize the opportunity when he responds to the debate. I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention—she is right that seeing such programmes being delivered is inspirational.

Teachers need the training to deliver the courses. This week, one teacher contacted me to say that she had paid for herself to become a qualified mindfulness teacher, and she has seen a remarkable impact on her students from the courses she teaches. As she rightly points out, however, we need courses to be run for the teachers themselves, because they need to embody mindfulness before it can be taught effectively. We then need teachers to be taught how to teach it.

In the context of education, our all-party group on mindfulness is concerned not only with pupils and students, but with those who work in education. Sadly, according to the statistics, the challenges that they face are compelling. According to an NASUWT survey, half the teachers polled had visited their doctor with work-related physical or mental health issues; more than three quarters of them had reported anxiety; and 86% had suffered sleeplessness. Mindfulness has the potential to tackle such issues.

Order. The hon. Lady was not present at the beginning of the debate. I will let her make an intervention, but please, colleagues: you have been here for a year and a half. You know the rules.

I had a view of some research in a 2014 Clinical Psychology Review. Researchers at Montreal University, who looked at 209 studies covering more than 12,000 people, concluded that mindfulness is especially effective to reduce anxiety, depression and stress. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that mindfulness would be extremely beneficial for young people to use as a tool to cope with stress and anxiety, be it social, exam-related or otherwise?

The hon. Lady, though late, makes a good contribution. Unions such as the National Union of Teachers in Wales offer their members massively discounted rates for mindfulness classes.

Gosh: we now have a free-for-all. I will be less generous next time, but if the hon. Gentleman wishes to give way—

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. He is making a powerful point that mindfulness is extremely useful throughout life. For example, it can also help with transition when people have long-term health conditions, which is beneficial for the person and for our public services.

Absolutely—another intervention that was worth taking, although my hon. Friend was a little tardy in arriving.

Before the recess, I chaired a meeting in Parliament at which Professor Craig Hassed of Monash University, Melbourne, informed MPs about work he has been doing for 25 years to introduce trainee doctors and teachers to mindfulness as part of their curriculum. It would be good to see that practice emulated in British professional training.

To conclude, in the past few years we have made real progress in the field of mindfulness in education, but a great deal more can be done. A strategy that considers how best to train the attention of young people from childhood through adolescence and early adulthood would help to stem the tsunami of mental ill-health that is enveloping the youth of the western world, while simultaneously supporting learning and helping to tackle behavioural issues.

Mindfulness training offers preventive strategies to grow resilience in our young people. With mental health issues on the rise in schools and colleges, and CAMHS—child and adolescent mental health services—under pressure throughout the country, it is imperative for us to seize the opportunity to make that resilience training a natural part of our children’s education. I am proud to be working alongside mindfulness advocates, educationalists, academics, scientists and fellow politicians, across party, in taking the issues forward for the benefit of the next generation.

The all-party group has had consistently positive responses from Education Ministers, who have been keen to work with us. For example, in 2014 the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), then an Education Minister, met the group and we had a useful discussion; and last October the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), then the Secretary of State for Education, spoke at the launch of our APG report, “Mindful Nation UK”.

I thank the Minister present for already agreeing to meet a cross-party delegation in the near future to discuss issues further. Meanwhile, I would be interested if he took up the offer so well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden): to visit a school where mindfulness is being taught, so he may see that at first hand. Will the Minister commit to support the growth of mindfulness courses in schools for children and staff? Will he also work with his ministerial colleagues to look at the latest research into, and best practice for, the wellbeing of teachers to ensure that they have the psychological and emotional resources to provide world-class teaching for our children and young people?

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Walker.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) was able to secure the debate, and I thank him for a thorough, informative and thoughtful contribution. Ensuring the wellbeing, happiness and success of our children and young people is a top priority for me, as it is for him. The debate is timely in that, given the change of Government, I have recently taken on departmental responsibility for children’s mental health, which is an area that I feel passionately about and with which I have been involved through my work for children in care.

I am fortunate to have been the Children’s Minister for four years. Throughout, my focus has been on improving the lives of all children in our society, in particular the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. Now, I will be working closely with my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) in her new role as the Under-Secretary of State for Health with direct responsibility for child and adolescent mental health, as well as with ministerial colleagues in other Departments, to ensure that we garner knowledge about and growing evidence for the impact that we can have if we work earlier, more collaboratively and with more conviction to tackle such issues.

One of the Government’s main priorities is to prepare all young people, wherever they live and whatever their background, for life in modern Britain, to ensure that they all have the opportunity to develop necessary character and resilience and to grow up to become well-rounded individuals who can make a positive contribution to society. I am in no doubt that positive wellbeing—emotional, as well as physical and mental—the ability to cope with life’s challenges, and good mental health are key aspects in achieving just that. We still have a long way to go, but we are working hard to make real and lasting improvements. We all have to acknowledge that, historically, the importance of good mental health has not been prioritised in the same way as physical health, despite the fact that the impact of poor mental health can be just as profound on young people’s education, overall health and life chances.

That alone will not compensate for all the years in which the area has been underfunded and under-prioritised, but yes, we have committed £1.4 billion in funding to turn around and transform services, asking local areas to identify the needs of their local populations and to look at developing new approaches, in particular those focused on upstream investment in preventive approaches. At the same time, national organisations such as the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, which I co-chair, are working to improve all aspects of internet safety, including on cyber-bullying and self-harm.

As the hon. Member for Scunthorpe said, and as we know from a 2004 study by the Office for National Statistics, about one in 10 children and young people had a diagnosable mental health disorder—the equivalent of three in every classroom—and another four or five in each class had poor mental health. That was 12 years ago, and due to the huge and in some ways unimaginable changes in society since then, young people are growing up in a very different environment from the one in which we grew up and are facing a whole new set of challenges. A ChildLine report published in January suggested that modern-day pressures such as cyber-bullying and social media are affecting children’s confidence and self-esteem. Children cannot unplug from their online world, and that is changing the shape of many of their relationships and the pressures that they come under at a much more tender age. In order to understand much better the impact of that, the Department of Health is undertaking a prevalence survey to look at the state of the mental health and emotional wellbeing of children and young people across the country. When that survey’s findings are reported in 2018, they will give us a comprehensive and far clearer picture of what young people need.

There is still much more for us to learn and do to enable all children to enjoy good mental health and emotional wellbeing, and I completely agree that schools and colleges have a vital role in achieving that. That is where mindfulness—a modern innovation born from the deepest traditions of meditation—comes in. Such approaches, which focus on building skills and resilience to help children and young people to be far more aware of their own mental health and give them the confidence to ask for help when they need it, have the potential to be incredibly useful when used in school and college settings.

I have been interested for a while in how mindfulness can be used to help children and young people to focus their attention and develop their concentration skills—a real problem for many youngsters at a much younger age than ever before. I have also been struck by the testimony of many teachers and pupils—we have heard more of that today—who have adopted this approach and found that they are calmer, more fulfilled and better able to deal with stress and anxiety. I took an interest in mindfulness because my dad was on “Desert Island Discs” earlier this year, and he spoke about some of the moments of acute stress in his life and the debilitating effect that often has, and about the importance of being able to talk to someone about that in the hope that help can be given, coping strategies can be worked out and stress can be pre-empted and prevented from developing in the first place. Again, from what I know, much of that appears to be at the heart of what mindfulness is all about.

Many schools successfully use mindfulness approaches such as those offered by the Mindfulness in Schools project, and some of our teaching schools, including the Alliance for Learning, offer mindfulness training to other schools, both as part of their staff continuing professional development and as a way of supporting their pupils. Anthony Seldon, the former head of Wellington College, is a strong advocate of that approach. I am keen to learn more about the impact of such courses and would welcome the opportunity to hear more about such approaches from members of the all-party parliamentary group—I am grateful to one of its co-chairs, the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), for taking part in the debate—and to visit one of the mindfulness programmes in action. I am not sure whether we will necessarily end up in Wales, but I am sure that we will find a school that will give me a really good insight into the positive impact that mindfulness is having on its pupils and staff, and on the wider community.

It is important that schools and colleges are able to choose programmes and interventions that are right for them and their pupils. No single approach will be right in all circumstances, and it can be difficult for schools and colleges to know what is safe and most effective to offer to their pupils. Rightly, our first step is to have a better understanding of what schools and colleges are doing, so we are in the process of conducting a large-scale survey to ask them what approaches and interventions they use and which they find are the most effective. Mindfulness is specifically mentioned in that survey, so when the report is published early next year, we will have a much better idea about what is being provided and what difference it is making. That report will add to the evidence that is already being collected by the Oxford Mindfulness Centre through its mindfulness and resilience in adolescence research project, as the hon. Member for Scunthorpe said, not to mention the APPG’s report, which I have had the opportunity to read.

Because schools need to decide what is best for their pupils, our approach is to support them by providing information, support, advice and guidance about the many options available to them. We have focused on four key areas of support: prevention, identification, early support and access to specialist help. The prevention strand covers a range of activities and programmes that raise awareness of mental health and emotional wellbeing and promote resilience. We want schools to have a whole-school approach that makes talking about feelings, emotions and wellbeing as normal for pupils as talking about their physical bodies. That might include lessons taught as part of the PSHE curriculum, whole-school programmes such as mindfulness that become a normal part of the school day, role play in drama lessons, or offering meditation or yoga sessions, which I know the hon. Gentleman is particularly keen on. I am a pilates man myself, but they both help mind as well as body.

Improving identification of potential problems, including increasing awareness of those who might be vulnerable to such problems, will help everyone to become more aware of the warning signs of a problem and help children and young people to become more confident about asking for help. Often, one of the biggest barriers is that they do not have that confidence.

Our voluntary and community sector grants programme has allowed us to support schools and teachers by working with the likes of the Anna Freud Centre and Place2Be, which develop really good programmes that enrich teachers’ knowledge, promote mental health education throughout the whole school and offer targeted support for those who need it. Teachers’ knowledge of mental health is supported through resources such as the excellent MindEd, which includes a module on mindfulness, and by funding new and existing projects such as MindEd for Families and the YoungMinds helpline for parents, we have been able to help to support identification outside school settings. One of the difficulties is that some problems are trapped away from the school, and that work is about how we manage to bring them to the surface by making children feel confident that even in the family setting, there is help for them should they need it.

When problems occur, early support can help to prevent them from getting worse. Schools and colleges have put in place a range of practices that are effective, such as having a named adult whom young people know they can turn to, or providing access to a school counsellor, as most schools already do. Many young people also want the option of talking safely to their peers about their concerns, so we are looking at what is involved in creating and running a good peer support programme. I was delighted that nearly 2,000 young people responded to our call for evidence, ensuring that their voices will be at the heart of what happens next, and we will publish our findings in the autumn.

However, there are still many circumstances in which despite all our best efforts, children and young people need to access specialist mental health support. To help improve joint working between education and health professionals, we have been part of a £3 million pilot with NHS England over the past year that has provided joint training to staff and tested how having a single point of contact in schools and child and adolescent mental health services can improve referrals to specialist services. The outcomes of that pilot are being independently evaluated, and we are looking at how we can share that learning and best practice so that more children can benefit from similar bespoke support.

Although mindfulness is only one way of addressing the stresses and strains of modern life, it is becoming more widely known and used, and I am sure more widely appreciated. Its definition, which is set out in the APPG report—

“paying attention to what’s happening in the present moment in the mind, body and external environment, with an attitude of curiosity and kindness”—

is one that we should all heed when bouncing blindly from one day to the next. That is why I welcome the opportunity to get off the treadmill for a few hours and visit a school so I can perhaps practise some mindfulness myself.

As the evidence base grows and best practice becomes better known, mindfulness has the potential to play an important role in providing children and young people with the mental and emotional resilience that they need to fulfil their potential. That, I think, is what they call optimistic thinking.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered mindfulness in schools.