Is mental health support & healthcare provision the new differentiator in the UK education market?

“We don’t see mental health being able to be dealt with by one person or one department”

In a crowded competitive market looking to attract both domestic and international students, UK Boarding Schools & Universities are always looking for a competitive edge.

Pre Covid, pastoral care was an issue that families who came to UK Education Guide for independent support were increasingly asking about, we could already see this issue rising up the list of questions particularly from parents selecting Boarding schools for their children.

A review of a new book by Marian Salzman, The New Megatrends, presents a “2038 futurein which the pandemic has never gone away and in which we live with a parade of ever-mutating variants. In that world, protection against disease is a luxury good. Universities that wish to position themselves to thrive in that imagined future may want to invest in campus health as a core capability, right up there with teaching and research excellence.”

The book highlights that potentially the strength of health and wellbeing services may well be a key differentiator in student decision making in future, recognising the already increasing focus on college mental health care provision.

This poses the question, what level of support might be needed to be perceived as a ‘competitive advantage’. A recent article in the LA Times cites this statistic, “One national organization that accredits counselling centers at many colleges and universities recommends one therapist for every 250 students, a standard many schools fail to meet.”

So, what do school leaders think about healthcare provision being a new key differentiator in the UK Boarding school market? Is it all about marketing literature highlighting the ratio of student: counsellors? Is this the right way to measure how serious a school is about addressing mental health needs?

Not so, according to Anna Matthews-Stroud, director of Kings Colleges.

“In many ways it is easy in marketing literature to talk about the crucial role of the school counsellor, but at Kings the message is different, more nuanced. We don’t see mental health being able to be dealt with by one person or one department; anxieties will rise up at any given moment, and can last for days or might pass quickly, though return frequently. While a dedicated student services manager or counsellor is of course an integral part of a college team – we see that quality pastoral care has to have a range of staff focused on it at all times,” she says.

“At Kings, students have regular contact with a range of staff – student services team, directors of studies, personal tutors, UCAS advisors. Each of these people is responsible for getting to know each student as a person, holistically, so the student feels comfortable to discuss what is concerning them.

“What is often apparent is that students need space and confidence to speak when they need to: in the right college environment they can do this, and don’t need to wait for a counsellor appointment,” she adds.

Most of the school leaders we spoke to all agree that healthcare and specifically mental health care support are key features any school or college must highlight to prospective parents; “Absolutely, a key differentiator,” says Cory Lowde, Headmaster at Box Hill School.

“The pandemic has definitely shifted the dial in terms of parents wanting greater knowledge of healthcare and particularly the mental health care support we offer,” he adds.

“We have to see mental health as being of parallel and equal importance as physical health. Just as we consider daily what we feed our young people to ensure physical wellbeing we have to see mental health in the same way,” he says.

To this end Box Hill has put its ‘Hub’ which offers counselling and mental health support in the physical centre of its school premises to stress its importance.

“We are also stressing to our students – ‘you don’t have to be sad to visit the Hub, just pop in’ – we have to normalise a visit to the Hub in the same way as someone would visit the school nurse for a physical examination,” he states.

So, a focus on healthcare and mental health provision specifically will be definitely more visible in school brochures and on websites from now on. However, maybe those schools and colleges that can truly exhibit how mental health care is not the concern of just one department or group of counsellors, but a key focus of all staff engaged with student engagement will have the edge.

About the author: Pat Moores is the director and co-founder of UK Education Guide.