All children and young people experience emotional difficulties when growing up. However, for some these difficulties can lead to more serious mental health issues, and research suggests that the number of young people developing problems such as anxiety and self-harm is increasing. As most young people spend a lot of time in schools, it is important to understand what schools can do to support their mental health. Our review of existing research has found that a supportive school culture and students having a say in what happens in their school can promote and protect good mental health.
In this study we will explore, in partnership with a mental health charity called ‘Off the Record’ (OTR), whether school culture can be improved, using a method known as Participatory Action Research (PAR). PAR is an approach in which people collaboratively research their own experience or environment. In this study, a group of students and staff in three secondary schools will work together, supported by a facilitator from OTR, to introduce activities or changes to their school culture. They will then collect information to help them evaluate the impact of these changes on student mental health in their schools, and will make plans for further changes if required. They will follow this cycle a number of times. At the same time, the research team will also assess how well the PAR approach works to improve school culture. To do this, they will observe some PAR group meetings, collect reports from the OTR facilitators, and conduct interviews with staff and focus group discussions with students in the three schools.
If the PAR approach is successful, the research team will use the learning from the three schools to develop a toolkit that other schools will be able to use. This will include a definition of school culture and resources to support staff and student-led initiatives to improve school culture. The first draft of the toolkit will be shared and discussed with school leaders, young people’s advisory groups and other stakeholders, before the final version being made widely available as an online tool.