Start in school

Planning effective pre-clinical interventions for young people

Claire Sewell looks at a new Post Graduate diploma course for 2021 which will help schools – including international schools – become more self-reliant in making a range of positive interventions.

The place to start is school

There is no doubt that schools are potentially an ideal environment to nurture positive mental health and emotional wellbeing and it is widely acknowledged that early mental health need is highly likely to be noticed in school in the first instance.  As one parent puts it:

My daughter trusts her teacher more than anybody. . . . . as they get older, that trust becomes even more precious . . . . they are going to talk to their teachers.

The global pandemic has also highlighted and aggravated a mental health need that needs to be addressed.

Schools want to help

Despite all the pressures, in my experience, educational professionals are motivated to care for their most vulnerable children. Teachers all know that the link between positive mental health and academic achievement is real and want all the children in their care to have a good start to life.  However, many schools do not have the appropriate capacity within their team to support these children effectively, despite the fact that  they are encountering more children at the earlier stages of need. In the UK this has been exacerbated by a reduction in support from outside agencies, and in the international arena, there may be little or no external support  available.

Building capacity for positive intervention

There is therefore a professional gap, one that a team at the award-winning social enterprise Minds Ahead has identified as real, but one that they knew could be addressed. They were aware that school leaders felt that having the opportunity of professional development for those wishing to become specialists in the field of mental health and children in schools, would be a welcome asset. They also became aware that, ideally, the programme would be based on school needs and could be set within the school context.

Their aim was to create the first cohort of pre-clinical mental health specialists qualified at post-graduate level to work in schools and so the concept of the School Mental Health Specialist Post-graduate diploma was born. The programme has been developed in collaboration with school leaders and educational professionals from a wide range of settings.

The School Mental Health Specialist (SMHS) programme

The course, which is fully accredited at Postgraduate level will be awarded by Leeds Beckett University and launched in September 2021. All delivery will be online. It will focus on the needs, perspectives, challenges and opportunities involved in supporting students in a school or college setting – both in the UK and internationally.  Students joining the programme, who may be teachers or support staff from a school community will develop their skills around the early-stage identification of need, mental health support and the promotion of positive mental wellbeing for children and young people with emotional and conduct needs.

Support within schools: a welcome initiative

Sir Norman Lamb, former Health Minister and Patron of Minds Ahead sees the initiative as timely which will contribute to the climate nurturing positive mental health while giving students access to pre-clinical support when they need it. As he says:

“We urgently need to train more specialists and more of these experts need to have a youth focus … (it) points the way towards a future where young people receive the support, they need to flourish and make a happy, healthy transition to adulthood”.

The initiative also reflects the increasingly influential belief that schools can do much more than ‘identify and refer’ mental health needs to outside agencies (where they exist). The course also aims to embed a foundation of mental health literacy, awareness, skills and understanding so that the school community is empowered in managing their own mental health needs, reducing the need to refer cases on and providing increased support for those at the pre-clinical threshold. The new programme will take a whole-school approach, promoting mental health and looking across the school community to make changes that benefit all pupils.

Bridging the expertise gap

The SMHS programme will bridge the divide between the clinical and educational expertise available to support young people and enhance the notion that schools are the best place to provide support for those at the pre-clinical threshold. It is the belief of the team at Leeds and Minds Ahead that effective provision of mental health in schools does not simply depend on clinical experience, but is best served by clinicians and educators working together. A joint statement from the UK’s Department for Education and Department for Health and Social Care supports this view:

“There is evidence that appropriately-trained and supported staff such as teachers and teaching assistants can achieve results comparable to those achieved by trained therapists in delivering a number of interventions addressing mild to moderate mental health problems such as anxiety, conduct disorders”

Who can get involved?

The School Mental Health Specialist programme is open to all schools and colleges teaching 3–18-year-olds. This includes special, alternative provision, independent and international schools. The programme is part-time with online delivery so that course students can access at times that fit into their schedule.  Each module lasts a term and are all focused on the work you do to support and strengthen mental health in your own school.

Work-based training rooted in evidence

Participants will join a growing network of School Mental Health Specialists committed to equality and social justice.  This will enable course students to learn from and share with colleagues from a range of contexts from across the UK and internationally.  The opportunity to learn from another school in a structured study visit and host a fellow specialist at the student’s school, is an innovative and exciting addition to this programme, allowing the learner to broaden their perspective of school-based mental health and have a supportive peer review of mental health practices in their own setting.

This programme will challenge school-based colleagues, recognise their contribution to the school and elevate awareness of mental health among all members of the community. It is an initiative whose time has come.


Claire Sewell on behalf of Minds Ahead,

Claire Sewell is currently  studying for an MA in the Leadership of Mental Health and Wellbeing. Formerly Head of Learning Support / SENCo and DDSL in Bangkok,  she now works with Minds Ahead as a Learning and Development Specialist.  She will be joining the  Leeds Beckett University team to deliver units in their new Masters course in 2021 – 2.



If you are interested in finding out more or applying for the courses at Leeds Beckett University, please click the link:


FEATURE IMAGE: by Wokandapix from Pixabay