Supporting mental health and wellbeing at Bedales Prep, Dunhurst

At Bedales Prep, Dunhurst, pupils will mark Mental Health Awareness Week with a Pupil Voice Conference on the topic of this year’s theme – loneliness. Like Bedales Senior, where the School Council was one of the first in the country when it was established in 1916, Dunhurst has a long tradition of listening to pupils’ views. Today, empowering children to find their voice and put forward their views is just one of the school’s initiatives designed to support pupils’ wellbeing and mental health – but it is far from a tick-box exercise. At Dunhurst, the wellbeing of its pupils is at the heart of everything the school does.

It is especially noticeable at this time of year, when most prep school pupils around the country are preparing themselves to sit the Common Entrance exam. Head of Dunhurst Colin Baty considers Common Entrance “an antiquated way to select” and cites evidence around adolescent mental health as a reason to exercise caution when forcing prep school children to jump through such hoops in preparation for senior school. As such, Dunhurst pupils do not sit the Common Entrance exam – and instead use the time to head off on ‘Camps Week’, a whole school residential trip to different areas of the UK, where they take part in a plethora of outdoor activities, including mountain biking, moor walking, cycling, kayaking and horse riding. As Dunhurst’s Deputy Head (Pastoral) Graeme Thompson explains: “We give our pupils the space and time to grow. Each child experiences childhood at their own pace.”

Camps Week is an example of pupils’ access to green and blue spaces – such as parks, meadows, woods, rivers, lakes and sea – which, as studies show, have a positive, immediate and long-lasting effect on people’s health and wellbeing. At Dunhurst, however, pupils don’t need to leave the school grounds to access green spaces; the school, along with Bedales’ senior and pre-prep schools, is set in 120 acres of South Downs National Park, and pupils are encouraged to spend as much time as possible outdoors. Uniquely, the school’s Outdoor Work curriculum – a core subject which incorporates nature and conservation, horticulture, animal husbandry, bushcraft and country crafts – enables pupils to develop an awareness, appreciation and knowledge of the natural environment in line with Bedales’ founder John Badley’s original aims, whilst developing self-confidence, passion, empathy and teamwork.

As part of the curriculum, Dunhurst pupils are actively involved in the care of the Outdoor Work department’s chickens, ducks, guinea pigs and bees, and there are opportunities to feed and care for other livestock on the Bedales estate, including pigs, sheep, goats and ponies. But interaction with animals – which is proven to have a calming and de-stressing effect – isn’t limited to the school farm. As a dog friendly school, staff dogs – or the ‘pastoral pups’ as they are affectionately known – are a familiar fixture. From Colin’s Goldendoodle to the boarding house’s resident Black Labrador, the dogs are an integral part of school life and provide pupils with an array of cognitive, social, emotional, physical and environmental benefits.

Fundamental to Dunhurst’s approach to wellbeing is relationships, which is ingrained in Bedales’ distinctive ethos. The school’s founding motto, ‘Work of Each for Weal of All’, may be over 100 years old, but it hasn’t faded in relevance. “The school motto underpins everything we do,” says Head of Wellbeing Debbie Baty. “Every pupil has the right to enjoy a childhood at school, but this right comes with a responsibility to be a positive influence within the Dunhurst jigsaw.” The ethos offers opportunities for pupils to support fellow pupils – for instance, peer to peer listeners, known at Dunhurst as ‘RAKtivators’, promote ‘Random Acts of Kindness’.

In contrast with other schools, staff and pupils address each other by first names, and pupils shake the hands of all staff after assemblies and talks – features of a culture that values the individual and celebrates relationships with one another and the school. Such an approach allows for a closer collaborative relationship between teachers and pupils, and this collegiate approach is extended to parents through three-way communication between teachers, parents and pupils known as the ‘Dunhurst triangle’. Debbie has recently launched a ‘Let’s talk about…’ series for parents, which will focus on teenagers’ development as well as sharing the content of pupils’ Wellbeing lessons, which supports and teaches skills to enable children to increase their awareness of emotional health and wellbeing.

Whilst wellbeing is at the heart of everything Dunhurst does, it isn’t at the expense of academic success. In fact, Deputy Head (Academic) Andy Wiggins says: “It’s always been borne out, year after year, when we look at how Dunhurstians perform when they take their GCSEs and A Levels, and compare them with students who have been academically ‘hot housed’. Time and time again, Dunhurstians prove that they get comparative or better results – and they’ve had a much richer, holistic experience.”

Supporting positive mental health

By Laura Wells, School Nurse

To mark Mental Health Awareness Week, the Health Centre would like to highlight some great resources for children and their parents, ranging from local charities to nationwide organisations.

We recognise that following this last year’s events, everyone is in a different place concerning their mental health and if you are looking for any information on specific conditions, support networks or wellbeing information please look at the websites and phone numbers below. We are always open to be contacted by parents or students for further support or signposting to relevant organisations at bedaleshealthcentre@bedales.org.uk.

Young Minds, the UK’s leading charity fighting for children and young people’s mental health, has information for parents here. Parents/caregivers can also contact Young Minds via their helpline (0808 802 5544) or by email (parents@youngminds.co.uk).

Hope Line UK is a confidential support and advice service for children and young people under the age of 35 who are experiencing thoughts of suicide, or anyone concerned that a young person could be thinking about suicide. Contact their helpline (0800 068 4141), send a text (07860039967) or email them (pat@papyrus-uk.org).

Sane is a leading mental health charity with a range of information and resources available on their website and a helpline (07984 967708) operated by professionals and trained volunteers.

Rethink is a charity helping to improve the lives of people severely affected by mental illness through our network of local groups, services and expert information. 

Mind offers information and support for anyone living with or supporting someone with a mental health condition. Their website includes information for young people aged 11-18 here.

Headspace is an app designed to improve the health and happiness of the world through meditation mindfulness. The app is free to try, and you can subscribe for full access to meditations and mindfulness exercises covering everything from negative self-talk to how to improve motivation.

No Limits is a an award-winning, Hampshire-based, independent charity providing a unique combination of prevention, early intervention and crisis support to young people. Details about their virtual services, drop-ins and support groups can be found on their website.

Mermaids is a charity supporting gender-diverse kids, young people and their families. Their website includes information for young people and parents/caregivers.

Building resilience through self-awareness

By Kirsten McLintock, Head of Wellbeing

The focus for wellbeing this term is on cultivating resilience, the cornerstone of which is self-awareness. This week, students have completed a wellbeing assessment using the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale (WEMWBS) to measure good wellbeing. The assessment was used to facilitate a discussion about how we need to be using our Wellness Jar to ensure we look after our mental health, which we hope will increase our scores on the WEMWBS when we complete it again in the coming weeks. You might wish to complete the assessment yourself as it could scaffold a reflective, sharing conversation. Access the WEMWBS here.

To aid introspection and develop self-awareness, Blocks 4 and 5 have been practising mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn brought contemporary mindfulness to mainstream medicine and psychology through clinical intervention programmes such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and I trained in Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) at the University of Oxford. At Bedales, we are using meditations from Calm. Calm incorporates mindfulness practices from MBSR and MBCT without religious or spiritual discourse; it features meditation for sleep, anxiety, focus, motivation, self-esteem and gratitude, as well as gentle movement, stretching, nature panoramas and music designed to help you focus and relax. Calm provides the structure and guidance necessary to facilitate a daily meditation practice and mindful awareness. There is also an ‘Emergency Calm’ meditation that provides relief for feelings of being overwhelmed or stressed.

Students in 6.2 or Block 5 who are about to embark on a week of assessments may wish to consider using Calm’s ‘7 Days of Calming Anxiety’ course, which is available as a free trial on the Calm app. As we have been discussing in Wellbeing lessons, we must all take responsibility for maintaining our mental health and placing self-care alongside our other commitments. Key to resilience is self-awareness of stituations that may ignite stress and/or anxiety, and the actions we take (self-care) to manage them. The ‘7 Days of Calm’ series was a huge help to me and explained to me why we feel anxious, how to pause and feel those thoughts instead of pushing them away. It was insightful and, of course, calming.