SCHOOLS have transformed rapidly in the space of just a few years.

And one of the major changes is the increasing pressure on teachers not just to teach – but to effectively act as counsellors.

A recent survey by the NSPCC claimed the number of referrals by schools in England seeking mental health treatment for pupils has risen by more than a third in the last three years, to 34,757 in 2017-18.

While some of the rise since is likely to be a result of growing awareness among teachers, it also reflects a growing mental health crisis in young people.

Yet one school which seems to be successfully addressing these issues is Thurstable School in Tiptree.

Its most recent Ofsted report stated: “Leaders and staff provide excellent pastoral care which goes above and beyond. Consequently, personal development and welfare is outstanding.”

The head teacher Miles Bacon is well aware of the prevalence of mental health issues among school pupils today and how it has changed in his 13 years there.

He said: “Opportunities for young people to engage in the world are much greater than they ever were but along with that comes really significant risks.

“The difference is the internet and social media which is a huge change in how society functions and it hasn’t happened gradually. That has led to wonderful things – children can play on their X Boxes with others on the other side of the world – but some of it has really fed into vulnerabilities that children have always had, such as the wish to be accepted.

“That ‘Like’ button on many social media apps is absolutely toxic in terms of esteem of children.

"It’s like a sugar rush if you are ‘Liked.”

He added: “That is a challenge because it has happened so quickly that parents don’t understand it.”

Mr Bacon is keen to stress the impact of social media on children is wide held across all secondary schools and not specifically at Thurstable.

One way Thurstable addresses any incidents where a pupil is upset as a result of another’s actions on social media is through its Learning Relationship Co-ordinators.

These staff have a non-teaching, counselling role which has been in place for a number of years.

But in more recent times they have found social media-related issues have more frequently played a part in their work.

Their work was praised by Ofsted who wrote: “Most parents, pupils and staff believe that the support provided by the school in both the personal and academic lives of its pupils is beyond compare: ‘They never give up on anyone.’

"Pupils speak very highly about the work of the school to provide welfare support, especially the work of the ‘learning relationship co-ordinators’, who, in the school’s own words, help with ‘the complex job of growing up.”

Mr Bacon said if a pupil has upset another by posting a comment online they are educated about the impact it has had by one of the co-ordinators first, then the two sides are brought together to try to resolve the upset.

Sanctions for the pupil in the wrong can include detentions or isolation time.

But whereas in the past a cruel word said is gone soon after, a post published publicly can be shared among many and exist on screen for longer.

Perhaps it comes as a surprise then that Thurstable school has not banned mobile and smart phones and does not plan to – unlike a many other secondary schools.

Mr Bacon said: “The problem isn’t mobile phones, the problem is the internet and how that has changed our lives.

“Our job is to help them [pupils] navigate this new space and do so safely without hurting others.

“If you ban phones from schools you are saying you have nothing to do with that and then you can say it is not our responsibility.

“You have to accept mobile phones are part of children’s lives and part of our lives and need to be part of education as well.”

Mr Bacon gives examples of how pupils are encouraged to use mobile phones in lessons – only when specifically asked by a teacher to use them as part of a learning activity.

For example, this could be recording a video of a science experiment to then use as part of a homework task.

But he is clear that otherwise during lessons the school’s policy is for phones to be switched off and kept in pupils’ bags.

And if a pupil breaks this rule and refuses to hand a phone to a staff member it can be confiscated.

But it is not just social media that has forced schools to adapt to the prevalence of mental heath issues.

Attitudes have also changed.

Mr Bacon said: “We are much more sensitive now and thank God we are, to how children are feeling.

“If I went to a teacher when I was a pupil and said I was upset they would have said to pull myself together and that I was a ‘cry baby’.

“That was how it was what society felt it should be. Now we are really concerned about how are children are feeling – and acutely aware of it.”

Words used to describe different forms of mental illness, such as anxiety, depression and even self-harming have become more frequent when broadly talking about pupils’ wellbeing in schools today.

Understandably Mr Bacon would not disclose personal details about any of his students or allude to numbers of them with identified mental health issues, but does believe pressure has played a part on young people's wellbeing.

And this, he feels, can feed into anxieties of children who may not be the top academic achievers.

“If you say to schools, ‘actually the measure of your success is the data you are able to produce’ without meaning to, you are also saying children are not up to purpose.

“They are ‘raw material’ of which you produce data and that is absolutely toxic to any education system."

He added: “The point at which schools are influenced to lose sight of the fact their children are the purpose, more their ‘raw material’ – everything goes wrong.”

The pressures on any school in 2018 are clearly unwavering and perhaps no one has all the right or wrong answers.

What is clear is teachers, head teachers and support staff are on a learning journey, just as parents and pupils are.