Pupils' mental wellbeing is crucial for ensuring they succeed. Magdalen College School's master, Helen Pike, explains how she makes sure young people stay happy and safe.

EVERY week we are given fresh advice about threats to our mental health and how we might improve our wellbeing.

This is, of course, a particular preoccupation for parents and teachers.

As a head, I often say to parents that if children are not happy and safe, then everything else they are trying to achieve at school becomes peripheral at best.

Broadly speaking, the key to a happy life seems to be this: have strong networks of family and friends, have something which gives your life meaning and/or purpose, and keep active both physically and mentally.

Sometimes, the advice can be confusing, even contradictory, so one of the many challenges we face in school is striking a balance.

What is too busy, and what is not busy enough?

If teenagers can’t get out of bed on a Sunday morning, is that simply because they are teenagers, or because they are exhausted from too much homework and hockey?

Or perhaps they have they been on their phones all night when they should have been sleeping? Sometimes, of course, it’s all of the above.

In my previous column I wrote about how pupils excel academically not in spite of all the activities they do outside the classroom, but because of them.

This is about the other side of the coin – the importance of finding time to relax.

This isn’t the same thing as making sure there is time to party hard at the weekend.

It’s about having the confidence to step back and be quiet.

This September we made some changes to our Year 9 curriculum at MCS with all this in mind. Year 9 is the year in which pupils make choices about which GCSEs they would like to study, and so it is usually the busiest year of pupils’ lives in terms of the sheer numbers of subjects they take.

The danger here is the ‘foie gras’ effect in education—pupils can be stuffed with lots of different knowledge, but is it healthy for them?

So in Year 9, we have found two periods a week during which pupils are encouraged to take a step back from their academic study and reflect on some of the attributes and habits which will equip them for what they will encounter in the future.

These life skills are not just for further study, but also for life far beyond that.

The focus is on good decision-making.

What is the point of being able to decline a Latin noun if you have no idea how to say no to unreasonable demands in the workplace?

Fourteen is also the age at which most people who suffer from mental health disorders first report them, so Year 9 struck us as a particularly important year for our pupils to have that additional time and space to explore not just what they learn but how they think.

We want our students to take on board enough knowledge to be able to be experts in their field (After all, would you like to be seen by a doctor who doesn’t know their stuff?)

Equally, we need young people to have sound judgement.

The future belongs to them, and I’d like them to make it a decent one.

The motto of Magdalen College School is Sicut Lilium which means ‘As the Lily.’

This is a reference to what Jesus says about the lilies of the field.

Lilies don’t need to do anything – they simply exist all their splendour.

I joke to my pupils that this will not be taken as an excuse for failure to hand in homework, but it’s the ideal motto for a busy school.

We are the sum of all that we do—and sometimes we need to take a quiet moment to remember that we are fine just as we are.