The new post will strengthen existing research into how better to support young people’s well-being and mental health, in particular through the education system.

We must not lose sight of the fact that mental health, as well as a scientific challenge, is also one of social science and education

Stephen Toope

The University of Cambridge is creating a new Professorship in education and mental health, to further strengthen a growing research programme aimed at improving the wellbeing, and associated life chances, of children and young adults.

The post was announced on Wednesday 11 March, 2020, by the University’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, as he opened the Yidan Prize Conference: Europe, a major, international gathering of leading education researchers. The university, he said, had a ‘critical’ role to play in addressing the challenges of mental health.

The Yidan Prize Conference Series is linked to the Yidan Prize, the largest international prize in education, which is made annually to two outstanding individuals responsible for transformational changes in education research and development. The European conference is hosted by the Intellectual Forum at Jesus College, Cambridge.

One of the Yidan Laureates honoured this year was Usha Goswami, Professor of Cognitive Developmental Neuroscience at the University, and a Fellow of St John’s College. She received the award for her work deepening understanding of children’s early language acquisition, which has created a basis for new, effective interventions for dyslexia.

The conference more broadly aims to profile world-leading research that demonstrates how education can address major global challenges, and this year focused on wellbeing and education as one of its main themes: examining how schools, teachers and the education system in general can support children with mental health problems.

Opening the event, Professor Toope announced that the University will be creating a new role – Professor of the Psychology of Education and Mental Health – which will be based in its Faculty of Education. The first post-holder will be Professor Gordon Harold, currently at the University of Sussex, who has led several, field-changing studies into the relationship between domestic adversity and young people’s mental health, enabling schools and teachers to do more to support pupils with depression, anxiety and other mental health problems.

He will join a wider research network on wellbeing and inclusion within the Faculty of Education which is aiming to develop practical interventions and guidance for education professionals by addressing key, unanswered questions: such as how young people’s social relationships affect their learning, and how pupils and teachers can be better supported to cope with the various pressures of the education system.

“We must not lose sight of the fact that mental health, as well as a scientific challenge, is also one of social science and education,” Professor Toope said.

He added: “This goes beyond developing interventions for depression, anxiety, or other disorders. The promotion of positive mental health goes hand-in-hand with the task of helping future generations to enjoy greater opportunities and to become everything they can possibly be.”

Although many countries treat mental health as a matter primarily for health and social care services, education researchers and professionals have long highlighted its relevance for education.

That relationship was highlighted again in February, in Sir Michael Marmot’s '10 Years On’ review, which directly links poor physical and mental health in deprived parts of England to a pattern of social inequality that includes cuts to education funding and children’s services. His findings echo recent NHS research into children’s mental health, which suggests that 12.8% of five to 19-year-olds experience at least one mental disorder, and that these are more common among those from low-income backgrounds.

Professor Harold’s work has demonstrated the significant impact that adversity early in life – such as conflict between parents – has on depression, anxiety and behavioural disorders, and, through this, young people’s attainment at school.

He also led years of research that successfully challenged a thesis, popular among some education policy-makers, that young people’s academic attainment and behavioural development are principally governed by genetics. Professor Harold’s research has contested this assertion by studying the progress of children with biologically unrelated parents, such as IVF babies or those adopted at birth. This research has reinforced the significance of a child’s upbringing and environment for their mental health and development and how these experiences interact with and shape their genetic make-up.

He is now leading the national ‘enurture’ network, a UKRI funded initative, which aims to provide effective advice to parents, teachers and policy makers about how emerging digital tools and social media can be used to influence their mental health positively, rather than hinder it.

“One of the most exciting things about coming to Cambridge is that there is so much globally impactful work on education and wellbeing already being done here, offering a unique opportunity to complement and enhance the focus on families, schools and mental health that my research and impact activities represent,” Professor Harold said.

“There are still big questions that we need to answer to help promote positive child and adolescent development, both from a scientific and a social perspective. By drawing on all of these different areas of research we can start to equip parents, teachers, practitioners, and policy-makers with the evidence, support and resources they need to promote positive mental health among young people today – and the adults of tomorrow.”

This year’s Yidan conference also honoured the work of the 2019 Laureate, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, who died in January this year. Sir Fazle was the Founder and Chair of BRAC, one of the world’s largest non-profit development organisations, which has set up hundreds of early childhood development centres, where close to 40,000 children are presently enrolled.

Dr Charles Chen Yidan, the founder of the Prize, said: “The 2019 Laureates represent two very different approaches to ensuring that our children go on to lead happy, productive lives, but they also intersect. Both point to the need to achieve a better, deeper understanding of children’s needs. Through their work, we now see promising ways to help millions of lives around the world.”

Further information about the Prize is available from the Yidan Foundation website.

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