David Gallagher, NCFE

This is the first in a series of pieces on how further education and skills can be the cure for the societal impact of Covid-19. We examine the impact that the sector can have in ensuring people are equipped for life and work in the wake of this crisis and how we can work together to recover and build a more resilient future.

It’s not hard to see the impact of Covid-19 around us all. It has seeped into every facet of life as we knew it and it’s only now, with the upheaval lasting considerably longer than we ever thought it would, that we’re seeing the data on how it is affecting mental health. But the good news is, there is also evidence to suggest that education can presents an important part of the solution when it comes to looking after and positively maintaining our mental health.

Mental health used to be a taboo topic

Mental health used to be a taboo topic, a subject that was surrounded in secrecy and shame. Thankfully, our outlook has shifted thanks to the tireless efforts in recent years of charities, organisations and influential voices speaking out about their own mental health journeys, and we’re finally in a place where we can speak more openly about mental health. This has led to better understanding, more open conversations and as a result, we can see the size of the societal problem we now face – a potential mental health epidemic.

A recent study found that nearly half of Britons (45%) say the pandemic has significantly affected their mental health which illustrates that we have a real issue on our hands. The stress of fighting a global pandemic, school closures, job losses and approaching a year of on and off lockdown measures has certainly taken its toll. It’s difficult enough to navigate as adults, so the potential impact on the younger generation is very worrying. Cancellation of exams, home school, missing time with friends and family, and missing out on key ‘coming of age’ milestones have definitely impacted the lives of our young people and there’s no undoing that. What we can do, however, is to look at ways of preventing any long-term scars.

Move us on another level in our understanding

That knowledge and understanding we’ve gained of the issues around mental health now needs to be put into practice to move us on another level in our understanding. We need to flip our thinking on its head and adjust the language that we use. Why is it that when we talk about physical health and physical education, we do so in a positive way, but when it comes to mental health, the only connotations are negative? We need to review this as a sector, and as a wider society, engineering a cultural shift so that mental fitness is seen as something that can be proactively worked on and maintained. It’s through doing this that we can find new solutions and new ways of thinking to mitigate the long-term impact of this pandemic on our children and young people.

So, how can the education sector help to provide the tools needed to build resilience and confidence to keep going against the odds?

Our education system currently suffers from a significant gap in general understanding and teaching of mental education and fitness. We’re taught all about physical fitness (and undertake PE classes from a very young age), but there must be more awareness and skills development to enable young people to take responsibility for their state of mental fitness to prevent the documented decline of mental health.

NCFE has recently partnered with FIKA, a mental fitness platform, to tackle these issues head on. We conducted research around mental health which found that 79% of Brits believe that mental education should be taught in a similar way to physical education. It also found that 80% of people believe teaching confidence in schools and colleges is as important as teaching maths and English.

The results of our research clearly demonstrate the urgent need for preventative action – and this should start in schools and colleges. The public clearly value the importance of teaching confidence and identify that it is as crucial as maths and English in this changing world.

Fika is offering their mental fitness curriculum framework and skills development platform to half of the UK’s further education colleges, thanks to charitable funds from NCFE. This work will help students maintain and develop their mental fitness, as opposed to waiting for reactive support to ‘fix it’ when problems have already manifested. NCFE has endorsed the Fika curriculum and certificates to help reinforce the important message of valuing the development of mental education and fitness in the seeking of employment.

First of its kind in the UK

Learners across the UK will access remotely delivered interactive courses in positivity, confidence, connection, focus, motivation, stress management and meaning via Fika’s mental fitness platform - the first of its kind in the UK. These courses, created by expert performance psychologists and evidenced to build mental fitness, will be embedded into the learner experience and curriculum at the colleges involved, and learners will earn CV-enhancing certificates on completion of each of the seven Fika courses.

We are delighted to be funding this important work – at NCFE we are passionate about creating real change for young people, in many areas of their lives. One of the most fundamental things, which we must get right is teaching mental fitness at the crucial stages in education, before learners head into the ‘real world’.

Prevent young people from reaching a place of crisis

At the centre of our work, we are prioritising closing this education gap, to prevent young people from reaching a place of crisis. We believe that teaching the essential skills they need to have mental resilience and confidence is the key to supporting their future, wherever life might take them.

What we’ve shown in the past year, as an education sector, in terms of quickly adapting delivery and assessment, changing plans, and working environments, demonstrates that we are capable of reacting to problems and providing real-time solutions faster than we ever thought possible. Why shouldn’t we apply that same urgency to the mental health crisis by proactively supporting young people and making a real change to the way we teach, and the way we think? The time is now to make a change to our education system if we’re to stand any chance of creating a brighter future for our young people.

David Gallagher, CEO at NCFE

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