Alumni Chris Jeffrey talks to YuMag about his role as headteacher of Bootham School, chairing the HMC Wellbeing working group, and mental health across UK educational institutions.
Summer term is approaching at Bootham School, which means that Chris Jeffrey has held the role of headteacher for almost one academic year. A York History graduate, Chris came back to the city in September of last year to take up the post at the independent boarding school.
Following eleven and a half years in the same role at another independent school, The Grange in Cheshire, Chris was on the lookout for another challenge and a change in his career. He leapt at the opportunity to move back to York and take up the headship at Bootham School knowing that he would be “really happy here.”
Bootham School is a Quaker school and the Quaker ethos and values are “front and centre” in the school environment.
At the heart of Quaker education is the belief that there is ‘that of God’ in everyone and the school places a large emphasis on the belief that everyone has the capacity for goodness, and a responsibility to achieve that goodness.
Locating and drawing this out of its pupils is as important as the qualifications that they leave the school with or the knowledge that they accumulate during their time there.
“It is our role as school to locate that and encourage it and draw it out of each individual and to encourage each individual to do the same for everyone that they can in our lives.”
Before chatting to Chris, I was, perhaps rather naively, under the impression that as the headteacher of a Quaker school, he would have ties to the faith. But I was wrong, as he explains that he has never been a Quaker and the values of his previous school did not have a Quaker ethos. Rather, he was attracted to Bootham School as he felt its positive philosophy matched his own educational philosophy, giving it an “inclusive spirituality” that drew it all together.
His previous schools’ values, however, were very similar to those of Bootham’s but the addition of the “Quaker way” has now “given them a coherence, an overarching set of practice and beliefs that anchor them, that are much more longstanding with huge authenticity.”
The Quaker ethos is, in a sense, lived out in the school environment. Chris feels that there is something “very special” about the atmosphere in the school as soon as you walk in. “You get a sense of the place being a bit different from most of the schools you walk into.”
One of the Quaker beliefs is that you find your own understanding of your relationship with the divine very often through silence. One way that this belief is weaved into the school in a practical manner is at the start of assemblies, during which pupils sit in silence for up to ten to twelve minutes.
Perhaps rather difficult to imagine to those who may not have experienced it before, Chris describes it as “a very powerful thing”.
In some respects, the school shares some of its history with the University, whose foundations, Chris tells me, lie in the prominent Quaker families of York at the time of its establishment.
While at his previous school, Chris was the founding chair of the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference (HMC) Wellbeing Working Group. The HMC is a professional association of headteachers of the world’s leading independent schools.
The working group was established in response to concerns about the rising number of serious mental health issues observed among young pupils, such as self-harming, eating disorders, crippling anxiety and attempts on their own life.
Coping with the surge in mental health related issues in high schools was having a huge impact on staff and resources within the schools and the group recognised that action had to be taken.
“We were realising that the preoccupations of schools particularly in terms of the care they offered their young people were very, very discernibly changing,” explains Chris.
Research was first carried out in HMC member schools. Through discussion with schools outside the group, it was quickly established that the issues were not just an independent school problem but instead that all types of schools, private and public were dealing with the same issues.
“Schools were scared of admitting it was happening and particularly independent schools because as soon as you put your head about the parapet, the press will come and say it’s a problem among high pressured schools.”
Chris believes that accepting that these issues are present in addition to schools working together to find ways of coping with them is a positive sign that things have moved a long way in the last couple of years.
I ask Chris about what he deems the reasons behind these problems to be and the answer was clear: “they are enormously difficult to pin down.”
Social media, continual testing and modern parenting styles may all play their part but “a perfect storm of different things hitting at the same time” is making it very difficult to understand exactly what is behind the rise in mental health issues among teenagers.
Mental health is also very much on the agenda at British universities. Similar factors to those observed in high schools could be at play among University students.
Chris believes that perfectionism and the pressure to achieve are arguably two of the leading contributors, particularly against a backdrop of increased competition for graduate jobs and fees of £9000 a year.
Such issues could also be linked to the increasingly high ‘offer-grades’ demanded by universities, from which “young people get the idea that unless you get an A, you’re a failure.” Many students, although missing their offers by 2 or 3 grades, are still offered places, prompting concerns of unnecessary pressure on students to achieve.
“What’s being neglected is that the pressure put on young people to achieve grades that they may struggle to get, and actually don’t need to get, is very considerable indeed.”
Chris explains that there is not an easy way for schools to liaise with universities about a pupil’s conditions such as depression, severe anxiety or eating disorders. This has to be done with the young person’s permission and that person may not want their new university to know.
A recent discussion with University of York’s Vice Chancellor Koen Lamberts focused on the introduction of a pilot scheme in which schools would more formally handover, with the permission of the young person, that young person into the support or knowledge of existing campus mental health services.
“That way students arrive [at university] with at least with some knowledge of who they can go to, and the university’s staff understands something about the young people when they come in.”
Chris praises the university’s decision to be open about mental health and recognise that it needs to be firmly on the agenda.
At a time when mental health is at the centre of a large and complicated discussion, “it is important for young people looking at a university to know that it takes mental health and wellbeing seriously and is prepared to put resources into it.”