School always looks on the bright side of life

PIONEERING lessons have been helping secondary school pupils banish depression before it even appears.

South Tyneside's schools are taking part in a trial scheme to see whether young people's mental health can be improved by the lessons.

Borough council chief executive Irene Lucas is certainly a fan.

She told a wellbeing conference in London earlier this month that the project has been having a positive impact on youngsters.

It was as though "pixie dust and magic" had been sprinkled on South Tyneside, said Ms Lucas.

Coun Jim Foreman, the council's lead member for children and young people, also attended the conference, and he couldn't agree more.

As part of the programme, specially-trained staff are holding sessions with children aged 11 and 12 aimed at building up self-esteem and helping them cope with negative peer pressure.

The youngsters are also being taught relaxation and negotiation techniques.

Coun Foreman and the council's children and young people team hope the sessions will not only cultivate a positive outlook among South Tyneside's youngsters, but also improve their performance in the classroom.

He said: "The issues faced by children and young people today are unrecognisable from the ones they faced in days gone by.

"Instead of being able to enjoy carefree childhoods, young people are growing up having to cope with the devastating effects of divorce, exposure to drugs and bullying.

"The average age for the first signs of depression is now 14. Half a century ago, it was closer to 30.

"This programme is primarily about equipping our children and young people with the life skills they need to cope with the difficulties they encounter daily.

"In helping them to become more resilient, we should also expect to see improvements in their academic achievement, their school attendance and their behaviour both in and out of school. This is what we have to aim for.

"We are not looking at increasing the wellbeing of our children as an isolated benefit.

"There should be all kinds of knock-on effects resulting from this.

"We are currently working with Year 7 pupils, which is appropriate because the transition between primary and secondary schools can, in itself, be a traumatic experience for some youngsters."

The resilience programme being piloted in the UK is based on research into cognitive behaviour therapy and positive psychology by US psychologist Dr Martin Seligman.

Dr Seligman, of Pennsylvania University, was at the wellbeing conference in London too.

Speaking at the conference, he said lessons aimed at increasing wellbeing should be included in the school curriculum to try to improve young people's mental health.

Dr Seligman revealed that a three-year study in the US found children who had been taught positive psychology performed better in class.

Teachers also reported these young people had higher social skills and were more engaged.

"The evidence is that wellbeing is synergistic with traditional learning. People who are in positive states learn better," he told the conference.

"Much of what is taught in this area is based on sentiment.

"Depression leads to low productivity and poor physical health. Multiply that by a lot of people, and that affects a whole country."

South Tyneside is one of only three areas in the UK, alongside Manchester and Hertfordshire, taking part in the pilot project.

A group of 30 teachers, support staff and council officers travelled to Pennsylvania University in July last year for training in how to deliver the programme ahead of its introduction that September.

Since then, more than 900 children have benefited.

The programme is currently being delivered in seven of the borough's nine secondary schools and two special schools, as well as by the council's alternative education and looked-after children services.

Deborah Wilson teaches the programme at Epinay School in Jarrow.

She said: "We've got a culture of pessimism. A lot of our problems today are because a lot of parents are like overgrown children."

Coun Foreman added: "We are now into the second year of the programme, and are applying the lessons we have learned the first year, during which we involved entire year groups of children to see how they would respond.

"We learned that some of the children already had the coping skills the programme is aimed at getting across, while others, who had simply not encountered the adversities described, may benefit from the programme at a later stage.

"We are now able to target our work at the children who we feel will benefit most from it."

The council is also involved in the Making Good Progress pilot scheme, aimed at improving children's progress between the ages of seven and 14.

As part of this trial scheme, being tried out by 10 local authorities nationwide, the borough's schoolchildren are allowed to take more frequent, shorter tests when they are ready rather than having to wait until the end of key stages.

Coun Foreman added: "Children and young people are our most valuable asset, and we want to give them every opportunity possible to fulfil their potential.

"Our involvement in this cutting-edge work puts us at the forefront when it comes to exploring innovative ways to achieve this goal.

"We are a forward-thinking council. We are ambitious, and we will continue to think big."