In recent years, Australia’s schools have seen alarming signs in declining student health and wellbeing, only adding to the existing pressures that teachers and leaders have been facing.
Reports show that anxiety, depression, and conduct disorders are leading mental health concerns among Australia’s youth, with a 2019 study revealing one-in-seven 4-17-year-olds suffer from a mental disorder and one in six adolescents experiencing problematic levels of loneliness.
While increased funding towards youth mental health initiatives offers some hope, a recent national study found most students feel that their schools’ wellbeing programs are missing the mark.
This finding was further supported by a White Paper released last week that concluded the conceptual and practical separation of learning and wellbeing work in classrooms could actually be rendering many schools’ mental health programs ineffective.
According to Dr Pasi Sahlberg, professor of educational leadership at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, Australia’s education policymakers should address this by making health and wellbeing a core 21st century skill that is taught in every school.
Together with Professor Sharon Goldfeld, director of The Centre for Community Child Health, Dr Sahlberg wrote a Paper, titled ‘Reinventing Australian schools for the better wellbeing, health, and learning of every child’.
In the Paper, Dr Sahlberg and Professor Goldfeld argue that “the core purpose of schooling needs to shift from primarily focusing on narrow academic intelligence to equal value learning, wellbeing and health outcomes for balanced whole-child development and growth.”
“Our efforts to improve the quality and equity of school education outcomes have overlooked the natural connection between student health and learning,” Professor Sahlberg told The Educator.
“Although often well intended, health provision when present in Australian schools often come as a one-off program, separate project, or a response to already existing health and wellbeing issues that children have. In many schools, narrow academic learning is still the primary focus.”
Professor Sahlberg, who sits on the Federal Government’s expert panel to inform the next National School Reform Agreement, says health skills are equally important to children’s future as literacy and numeracy.
“These future health skills include enhancing digital, mental, socio-emotional, nutritional, and physical health and wellbeing of each and every child as early as possible, of course, in developmentally appropriate ways.”
Professor Goldfeld said “it is no longer possible for schools to holistically and equitably address what children need to flourish in the current complexity of their social, health, developmental and learning challenges.”
“Yet, there are options for different approach,” she told The Educator. “The pandemic has shown us that we can do things differently – at scale and at speed. So, if not now, then when?”.