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Mind the Gap: Wellbeing Disparities Between State and Private Schools Worldwide

Updated: Apr 16

I’ve spent six months considering whether to write this article. I’m not a teacher and have never had the experience of teaching in a classroom, however the past four years have led me to a point where I need to share my observations with the world. 


The state school education system in the UK is inherently broken.

I sold a successful business just over 4 years ago to start a new mission - to build a wellbeing platform to help children learn the skills to succeed. This has allowed me to travel the globe visiting schools and speaking to amazing school staff about their challenges.  


In my current role, I’m responsible for the roll-out of our wellbeing platform internationally, which includes a UK county-wide state school initiative. In just three months, we’ve visited over twenty UK state schools, ten international schools, and spoken to many many more. Combined with my personal experience as a parent to teenage daughters in UK state secondary schools, I have observed significant disparities in pastoral support and the emphasis on social-emotional learning compared to the private school sector, both nationally and internationally. It’s important to state from the outset that these disparities aren’t the fault of any schools or individual teachers, but lie in entrenched, systemic problems.


Mind the Gap Infographic describing the disparity in wellbeing and pastoral support between state secondary schools and private educational settings. Factors include: Budget, Time, Inspection Requirements, and Access to Technology.
Original Graphic by youHQ

A worldwide problem

Every school we speak to or visit in the UK or abroad, private or state-funded, have children presenting with very similar mental and emotional health issues. The volume is only increasing. As I have previously reported, the most common issues affecting young people are suicidal ideation, self harm, anxiety, and poor sleep. We know this from the anonymised data coming through our platform, but also via the conversations we are having with pastoral leads within schools. Surprisingly, the issues we’re seeing are universal, impacting young people whether they live in South Korea, Australia, the UAE, or the UK.



What are schools doing to stem the tide?

Schools are undoubtedly at the front line of this mental health epidemic. With five children in every classroom likely to have a mental health problem, the number of children with severe mental health issues is increasing. However, funding is not rising at anywhere near the rate required. 


Official approaches to wellbeing support are patchy at best for the UK. In October 2023, the UK Government released an article to their Education Hub website, in which they state their intention to ‘increase the number of Mental Health Support Teams (MHSTs)’. The target for coverage of MHST support is ‘50% of pupils and students in England by March 2025’. By the UK Government’s own projections, only half of all young people will be able to access the help they need. 


Similar statistics can be seen in other countries worldwide, however the lack of mental health and wellbeing support for children is only a symptom of a more ingrained problem with antiquated education systems.


The issue governments need to be addressing is not solely the support young people are receiving. They need to prioritise the teaching of life skills, such as self care and resilience.  A child who feels safe, secure and happy will learn better, therefore school curriculums should be based on a wellbeing-first approach. There are many examples of schools who, once given the flexibility to focus more time on wellbeing and personal development subjects, attain higher results and support their children to become well-rounded, healthier human beings. A recent Oxford Impact study ran an assessment to better understand any potential links between wellbeing and academic attainment. The research uncovered the following findings:


  • There is convincing evidence of a relationship between wellbeing and academic attainment, drawing on research conducted in a wide range of countries.


  • There is robust, longitudinal evidence that wellbeing is also associated with a variety of additional student outcomes including:


  • Pupil engagement


  • Experience of transitions between Primary and Secondary


  • Success compared to parents at the same stage of education (with ‘success’ defined in terms of the highest level of education attained)


The back profile of a young teenage boy watching a teacher in a classroom.
Photo by Taylor Flowe on Unsplash

Why the private school and international school sector are getting ahead

With regards to academic research, the jury is still out on whether a private paid-for education will stand your child in a better position with regards to their mental health. However, significant moves have been made by the private school sector over the last two years.


In September 2023, the UK Inspectorate for Independent Schools (ISI) amended their framework to prioritise wellbeing and personal development during their inspections - and schools are now doing much more in this area. Furthermore, the UAE’s KHDA Inspectorate recently implemented the Wellbeing Matters Framework in their schools. Independent and international schools are being mandated to measure student wellbeing and show the impact of their wellbeing strategies. This is a far more advanced requirement for emotional health than is set out for UK state schools under OFSTED, an inspectorate in need of serious reform in staff and student wellbeing areas.


In light of these developments, the gap in pastoral support between the state and private education is only going to grow in the next 5 years. This is in-line with the hypothesis of Dr Henderson who reviewed data from student surveys from both private and state school students in 2022:


The study concluded that “there is no additional advantage of private schooling with respect to mental health and life satisfaction” for the cohort it studied. But it cautioned that private schools have further increased their spending on wellbeing and pastoral support in the years since the sample group attended school.

Dr Henderson said it was possible that the increased pastoral support “was just starting to make a difference” for private school pupils, who she thought might have received more support during the COVID lockdowns.

“This is speculation but it might be that we see state school students fare worse in terms of mental health compared to private school students, post-lockdown. This question is ripe for future analyses,” Dr Henderson said.

Whilst funding is a further reason as to why independent schools are able to get ahead, it's not all about the money. Private schools have the flexibility to offer a dedicated, ingrained wellbeing curriculum. Although there is evidence to suggest private funded schools have more funding for wellbeing, we believe the major difference comes through the flexibility of the independent school curriculum and what state schools are forced to teach by inspectors.


Keeping their anonymity and privacy, a senior leader in a school we work with told us: ‘We just don’t have the time or resources to focus on student wellbeing above other topics and areas of the curriculum.’


Another pastoral lead has noted: ‘We try and build personal development and PSHE into our curriculum but it's hard to get staff and leadership to give it the same kudos as academic subjects.’


Until wellbeing becomes part of everyday conversations in school - and PSHE is given the same time and importance as academic subjects - things are not going to change.  In current UK state schools, there is a requirement to teach PSHE, however it can quickly become a poisoned chalice, with many unique challenges and areas to cover.



What the future holds

The post-covid world is in such a different place to when the UK education system was first developed. It needs to be adapted accordingly to meet the needs and requirements of modern young people. We strongly believe that if the UK education system doesn't take the lead of the independent sector in making wellbeing and life skills the focus of everyday lessons, the UK is going to be left behind with a generation of young adults with mental health issues - and a larger rift between the disadvantaged and the privileged. Can we really afford to let a generation of young people down who can't afford to go to a private school?


A teenager stands on a pavement/sidewalk holding a black school backpack.
Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

3 simple steps governments can employ to make a difference  

When we suggest that schools need to promote the teaching of wellbeing, we’re not suggesting a fixed approach such as daily mindfulness activities. We mean to embed life skills such as goal setting, financial wellbeing, and self care tools into regular subject lessons. Both local and national governments need to change their directive and focus on the 3 key points below:


  • To fundamentally change the way state schools are funded.  Schools should be funded based on the needs of the students and families in the surrounding area - and on how well they cater for the wellbeing of their students, staff and wider community.


  • To change the framework schools are inspected on and how they are graded. Schools should be directed to dedicate more time to areas covered within PSHE, SEL and Life Skills. For example, goalsetting and money matters should be taught within maths, mindfulness and brain health in biology, etc.


  • For all teachers to have a basic level of wellbeing and mental health training when they qualify to teach. We also suggest the formation of teacher wellbeing and support networks to help cater for their own wellbeing and mental health.



As head of a company deeply invested in the wellbeing of our future generations, it’s disheartening to see this occurring in our schools. youHQ is trying to provide accessible, affordable wellbeing tools to as many schools as we can - and we’re currently offering our validated SnapShot survey and mood check-in for free to ten state schools (usually £99).


Screenshot of the youHQ Comprehensive Wellbeing Snapshot Webpage

 

This article was created by Jon Ford, the founder and CEO of youHQ and Life on Time Ltd. Jon is a trained performance and wellbeing coach.


At youHQ, we believe in helping the mental health of teachers and students. Our cutting-edge app is changing the way schools care for their people. Learn more about our work and our platform here and book a free demo. 

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