October 2, 2022
Dominique Jones is a Teacher of Music at Dame Alice Owen’s school in Hertfordshire, a school which last year was awarded the Sunday Times best state school of the decade in the Southeast. We recently spoke to Dominque about how the Wellbeing Ambassador Programme she is leading is going and the impact it’s having on the students.
We had started doing some peer mentoring in 2019, with a focus mainly on Sixth Form students helping some key stage three students in terms of their organisation and managing homework, etc. We halted for COVID, as everybody did, for a long time, because even when school reopened there were bubbles so we couldn't mix year groups. Then we thought we would push for something more pastoral, for supporting wellbeing, supporting positive experiences. I started looking around for something that could help me with that, because I felt I needed some input, and it was not something I could do on my own.
We found the Worth-it Wellbeing Ambassadors material, got the train-the-trainer programme, and we took it from there. It was absolutely brilliant. I was driven by wanting to focus on wellbeing and mental health, being unashamedly pastoral: that's why we turned to Worth-it. I saw one of your webinars and I loved it, and I thought, okay, let's explore that.
When we got back after COVID, we had a year 7 cohort who had not stepped foot on site. We’d had a couple of years of in and out, and on and off, and not being able to connect year groups. And it sharpened our focus on working with the year 6s coming into year 7, so using year 12 mentors to help them make that step, that transfer into secondary school. That's always a time where students might struggle a little. I'm very much about looking at prevention, so looking at a visible focus on wellbeing and mental health, not just as a way of addressing things that have already cropped up. With the Wellbeing Ambassadors, we wanted to focus on the transfer process, and enable year 12 mentors to help year 7 settle into secondary school.
70 mentors, in total, were trained for September ready to go and help with the transition process. We trained so many because so many people showed interest and I didn't want to say no. I found it incredible, that expression of wanting to help, that number of young people who themselves had had two turbulent years, that 70 of them stepped up and said, ‘I want to help year 7, please,’ as soon as they got back to school.
We have helped children in years 8 and 9 as well but not to the same extent and that's been a little bit more bespoke and as needed, whereas this has been a universal offer for our year 7s.
The Wellbeing Ambassadors have all run form times in year 7 and played games – year 7 love that, they want them in there every week. They have been into assemblies too. Friday morning form time is when they tend to do their walk and talk, so a Wellbeing Ambassador (we call them peer mentors in school) will go to registration, find their mentee and they'll go and have a chat and sit around, outside because of COVID initially, but it works nicely anyway. And we’ve had some amazing feedback.
The whole of year 7 has had the opportunity to sign up. I think because of the visibility, and kind of the general buzz around it all, they felt able to come forward and ask. And for me and for the Wellbeing Ambassadors, that was a huge victory.
Yes. I've got to say that pastoral and SLT have been nothing but supportive. And I feel like that's where the success lies as well, I hope, in the longevity of what we're doing. I wanted to build the Wellbeing Ambassadors into school systems that already exist, like transfer and perhaps pupil premium and this wouldn’t work without SLT onboard. I have had an incredible amount of support.
All the year 7s loved it. We asked for some feedback and one commented:
“It's like having a big sister, big brother, someone I can relate to.”
Another pupil who wrote, “I want to mentor for my whole year 7.” That pupil hadn't been very sure about being involved in term one but agreed to try it for one session and see how they got on. They went for the whole of the first term, then asked if they could keep going! My amazing mentor who mentors that pupil has said that they would support another student as well, which is so kind of them.
I think sometimes the mentors can't always see the impact, particularly as they're preventing things from occurring – that's hard to measure, because it's not happening. But it's been lovely for the mentors to see that what they are doing is having a really big impact.
We talk a lot about connection and one mentor said to me, “All my mentees, they say hi on the bus,”. Even if their sessions are over, they keep that connection and it's not even necessarily that one connection, just that general sense that the older students in the school care and that they are safe, trusted people – that that can only be a good thing, it can only help.
We've had some lovely feedback from parents and carers too, who have said how much it has helped their child settle, how much their child admires their mentor, how much they look up to them, how much they relate to them. And we’ve had some of the most beautiful comments, such as, “My child wants to be a mentor when they get older.”
More than one of the year 7s has said they want to be a mentor when they grow up. I like that it is cyclical. So not only have we got this year group now who have benefited, but when that year group reach year 12, we'll probably have a bumper crop of Wellbeing Ambassadors! I hope my mentors understand that they can't underestimate the impact they’ve had, what it is that they have done, what they've created, what they've set up, how that's going to just keep going. Sadly, these amazing people will be leaving school next year or the year after, but what they've done is going to be there for years, and that's really something quite spectacular.
On a practical level, it's so easy to use, to understand, and it just works. The timings are really helpful, and it just ran beautifully. The response that we got, the level of conversation, of ideas, of interaction, was just amazing. Myself and a colleague delivered the first day and came out of it buzzing; we were like, oh my goodness, that is amazing, what has just happened?! The year 12s absolutely loved the interactive nature of the resources and the different tasks. There were so many smiles and so many laughs. But then there were also these moments of stillness and calm and thought and bravery. We talked about keeping ourselves safe, but some of the things that people shared in terms of their wellbeing and positive coping strategies, and how they feel, it was amazing. They loved that it was their vision and their plan.
Some of what they said just absolutely got me and they talked about being able to have discussions that they would usually avoid or find difficult. And we did say that there's no need to share and you only share what you need. So it wasn't too deep, but some of these ideas around stress and worry, coming off the back of two years where they [the year 12s] had felt quite isolated, they were talking about how empowering it was: empowering ideas, open conversations, talking about things that usually they would not necessarily talk about in that sort of situation.
One of my year 12s wrote on the form that they “realised that they were not alone.” That's what got me, the training helped them to know that other people feel the same as them and have the same sort of stresses. We've actually named our whole Wellbeing Ambassadors programme, I am not alone.
The power of that day was incredible – the resources and the way they worked were just perfect.
It made me realise how much our 12s got from it. I thought, even if they don't feel they have capacity to go on and mentor, even if from this point forth, they don't actually engage with any of the things we're doing, I thought that day in itself did so much for our year 12 pupils, and for me. And so so much for them. It was really clear from what they said. And there'll be stuff they didn't say. I can't recommend it enough. That's the sort of outcome that we got, it felt like we were delivering amazing training and our year 12s got an enormous amount out of it. It was amazing.
I'm quite clear on the impact for year 12s and 7s. I feel like there’s probably a little bit of work to be done around whether other year groups are aware, because I suppose that's the flip side of making it so targeted towards our transfer process. I guess, as we go on, hopefully in five years’ time every child in the school will have had the opportunity to have had a peer mentor. I think the impact for the whole school will come when we've had more cohorts moving through. By then the current year 7s will be heading into the sixth form, and every year group in between will have had this opportunity.
Now we have mental health leads in school joining up all the different things that are happening, we fit nicely into that agenda. In a whole school way, I'm working closely with the senior mental health lead. I think a larger school impact will come through that and through forming what we're doing. I do get emails saying, ‘Dom, have you got a mentor free for this? Are there any mentors that might be able to help out with that?’ It's really lovely, as we're gaining a little bit of momentum, and visibility, that I've got other members of staff saying, ‘Would you be able to help with this, is this sort of thing you do?’ I can now start to understand other ways in which we might cross over without too much more effort or work, there might just be ways that we can connect with other things that are going on, like science extracurricular programs. I think in terms of the whole school, we're going to, over the next couple of years, have a bigger impact. But I think in terms of the school community – parents, carers, siblings – we’re already having an impact.
A top tip would just be, go for it. A lot of our ideas came from year 12 – you don't have to think of it all, because they'll do it for you, which is fantastic and a much more effective way of operating. So, to get the students’ input would be another tip! They're incredibly insightful, and brilliant. Just go for it, and then see how you get on. Go for it in terms of facilitating, doing the training, getting it up and running. I've very much learned as I've gone, and amended and adapted, and asked for more and more feedback so we can manoeuvre the way we want to. I think the thing that has helped me the most is having that clear and sharp focus so we're not trying to be everything to everybody, we're just focusing on this one thing. We were pretty clear about our main focus of the year 7 transfer process.
I've learned so much, for my development as a person, as a human being, and as an educator – it's been unbelievably brilliant and enjoyable. So yes, do it!
To all the young people who have been involved in this, for their ideas, for the amount of input and to care so much, I’d like to say a big thank you to them for all they've done for the younger students. And a big thank you to the younger students for being willing to do this, to give it a go, to be brave, to help raise the visibility, to help reduce the barriers.
One year 12 student said to me, ‘Is there anything more I can do, because I'm a little bit worried about him [their younger peer], and I really want to help?’ What an incredible thing, it gives you hope for the future.
So, a big thank you to all those young people – they're impacting lives in ways they probably will never know.
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