A Q&A with Nathalie Richards about supporting students with the key issues that are impacting their wellbeing.

Could you please start by introducing yourself?

I’m Nathalie, CEO and co-founder of EduKit. We’re a social enterprise that works closely with schools to help them understand and support the mental health and wellbeing needs of their students. The reason we focus on that side of the education journey is that we believe that good mental health and wellbeing is the foundation of a happy and prosperous life. Students aren’t equipped to learn or take advantage of all the great opportunities ahead of them if they don’t understand and love themselves. So we provide schools with the analytical tools they need to understand which students might have hidden vulnerabilities, what those might be and how to best support them.

Tell us a bit more about EduKit

We have two core products. The first is a whole-school surveying platform that allows students to answer the same set of questions (each term or twice an academic year) relating to mental health and wellbeing, so the school can monitor their progress. This means school leaders can better understand the needs of their students and, importantly, identify those who are at risk and need urgent support and attention. The second product allows students to access mental health and wellbeing resources their school has added, so they can be proactive and find resources to meet a need. Also, it allows them to check in with their school and report (using a gauge of three smiley faces) how they are feeling on any given day. It allows schools to ‘take the pulse’ (pun intended) and get a regular sense of how pupils are feeling. It’s also a surveying tool, so if schools have a concern, then can run a specific study. The two products are framed within the wellbeing curriculum we are building that is based around aspects such as growth mindset, resilience, bullying, social justice, student voice and mental health – so schools have rich content for PSHE lessons and thematic days.

We also offer enrichment events. At the moment, we have premier league footballers delivering e-sessions about online safety, so they will talk about that as well as their careers. We have had sessions with street dancers, politicians and others, too. We want to harness all of these great online enrichment opportunities and bring them into schools, so they can incorporate them in a more structured way. These events are exciting for students because they get to see someone they look up to talking about mental health and wellbeing, as well as the other themed areas.

Before EduKit, what did you do?

Directly before EduKit, I worked at Apple as the project manager responsible for opening new Apple online stores across locations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. It was a varied role and really interesting working for a tech giant like Apple – especially at that time when they had just released the iPad. It was hugely inspiring, with development focused on new and life-changing products.

Before that, I had done a lot of work predominantly consulting with a variety of clients like British Gas, Centrica and BP – I also worked in banking with a variety of different paths but, in parallel with my day job as a management consultant, by night I was spending time working with youth organisations such as Young Enterprise, doing mentoring with them, going into schools delivering sessions particularly on their Learn to Earn programme that helps young people to understand things such as what VAT is, what the benefits system looks like, what they might do when they leave school and so on. Often, they have no idea of these concepts, so it helps if you frame the future and help them understand how to get there. It opened my eyes to the fact that some of those core life skills were not available and understood by all students.

I worked with several other organisations, some helping young girls get into science – and I sat on the board of Generating Genius. I was doing a lot in this area and saw an opportunity to connect my two worlds – technology innovation and implementation – as well as making an impact on young people’s lives.

What are EduKit’s key values and how do they relate to your own?

I think a core value is that positive mental health is a foundation and an imperative when it comes to having a happy and successful life. So that’s understanding that, whether that’s the work we do with schools or even just for us as a team in our openness about how we are doing and feeling in supporting each other, it is so important to prioritise mental health over all things. Another one is empowering student voice. It is great to see schools embracing this; when I was at school, it happened far less. Education isn’t a one-way journey where it’s just adults telling children what to do. Students have so many ideas, so much passion and creativity and tuning into that is so important – empowering them and allowing them the scope to be able to develop their interests and their learning in directions they are passionate about.

Also, I would say not reinventing the wheel. I have worked with several youth organisations that help people but often they don’t have a path to the schools and young people who need the help. So, a lot of what we do is through a service we run called EduKit Connect, a database where you can find provision. The social enterprises have funding to be able to support many young people, so we just want to be able to connect them to the great opportunities that are out there.

Can you tell us about the youth interventions you provide?

The main support we offer is to connect with existing youth provision (some of that is through our free virtual enrichment events) or with the activities those organisations are running themselves – and we’re aware of well over a thousand. This is a free service we offer to schools.

In terms of our own youth interventions, the key one is our work experience programme. We give students the experience to work with our team, virtually. They help us with different aspects like PR and Marketing, User experience, Testing and Customer research. We also award them a certificate of participation or achievement. It’s a good opportunity for them to work closely with our team and to understand what it is like to run a tech business. If a school signs up for the EduKit service, we also run a mini version of it within their school with a student ambassador programme, enabling students to proactively run the app, get feedback from their peers, market it, understand how it works and suggest new content to us.

Students love the opportunity and I think it helps to reinforce that they can do anything they put their minds to. And as I lead the business as a black female entrepreneur (there aren’t many of us in tech or edtech!), it reinforces the fact that absolutely anyone can run a tech business, so there is a role model and aspirational aspect too.

What are some of the current key issues impacting students’ wellbeing?

Of course, the legacy of the pandemic will be the impact it has had on mental health and wellbeing. Not to mention the uncertainty of what is going to happen next from an economic standpoint – moving through a recession or depression, depending on how things shape out over the next few months and years. There are so many uncertainties and young people are very susceptible to those, especially those who are thinking about university places or work after leaving school. There is lots of anxiety and low mood and many students are feeling withdrawn.

However, it’s important to present a more balanced picture: some students have shown tremendous resilience and some have even thrived despite the turbulence, so it’s not all doom and gloom but there are certainly a lot of young people who are struggling.

There are also the normal concerns that you always find in school settings like bullying, body image, self-harming. Then additional anxieties relating to social challenges (e.g. Black Lives Matter) and talking about police brutality and racial injustice, which has a detrimental impact on the wellbeing of certain students. There are also topics around consent – particularly the experiences of young girls with violence and sexual abuse.

It’s kind of a patchwork of different concerns. Schools are doing their absolute best to be able to support those areas and it’s essential they have the tools that help them to do that in a more structured and analytical way.

How can schools best support pupils’ wellbeing? Every pupil is an individual and has their own needs – but what would be some good general strategies for schools?

In a nutshell, I would say tuning into student voices: listening and understanding. Surveying tools like ours also help to understand those non-vocal students – not every child will express things openly and you wouldn’t know anything is going on, even though a huge amount is happening inside.

Another strategy is to foster an atmosphere where it’s okay not to be okay. I think that’s very important. We talk about positive mental health and wellbeing but, of course, we’re not all positive every day. Having times where we are struggling is part of life and that’s an opportunity to develop skills like resilience. So as long as they feel they can be open – and that often happens when staff are open about how they are feeling too. Nobody should feel they have to overshare but, if a staff member is having a bad day or trouble sleeping or dealing with anxiety, if they share that with their classes and their tutor groups, their students are more likely to open up if they have been struggling as well. That can be powerful for them and can also help them to support their peers effectively.

So, giving everyone those skills and creating that kind of environment where they feel safe to talk about these topics is fundamental.

What advice would you give parents for supporting their child’s wellbeing?

It can be a challenge for parents to understand how best to support their children. I think it’s important for them to be as aware as they can be about what’s going on in their lives, who their friendship groups are, which subjects they enjoy and why – and encouraging their child to be open with them about what’s happening. Sometimes though, you don’t want to necessarily open up to your parents in that way and that can be difficult, particularly during adolescence. But again, it’s about being open about how they are feeling, setting boundaries appropriately but opening up and creating a dialogue.

I do think it’s important to understand friendship groups because it’s those friendships groups that can take children down one path or another – and for them to reach out to the school as well. Most of the schools we work with want to involve parents, so I would say if parents were worried, do contact the school and see if there is a way that they can collaborate to support the child. If parents let the school know if they see anything such as self-harming or a child being withdrawn, then this can help get an early intervention.

How does EduKit support school improvement?

I think it’s impossible to talk about school improvement if we’re not having conversations around mental health and wellbeing. A caveat of that is it’s not just about pupil support, it’s also about all staff and we are looking into providing broader support for the whole school community using many of the same tools and techniques.

Having data is key. Then, whether it’s in SLT meetings or if a school has an Ofsted inspection, they can say, ‘Yes, this is the strategy and this is how it works’. Whether it is governors or inspectors doing the monitoring, they can immediately get a sense of how the school is performing or showcase best practice – and equally, if staff want to drill down on a particular child who is struggling, they can see what is happening on an individual level.

How has the legacy of COVID impacted on EduKit? For example, have more schools contacted you for mental health support for their pupils?

Yes, there has been more interest and the schools that we speak to are far more receptive about the idea of supporting mental health and wellbeing. Taking on board new products has been challenging for schools because they have been dealing with bubbles, students and staff self-isolating, testing, school closures and so on, but there is a huge appetite for products like ours and we have lots of schools now signing on for the new academic year.

Author

  • Nathalie Richards

    Nathalie is CEO of SEO London, a social activist and advocate for mental health and student voice. Nathalie was a management consultant and IT project manager at Accenture and Apple and, in parallel, volunteered as a youth mentor and coach with organisations such as Young Enterprise and 100 Black Men of London. Nathalie sits on the board of Virgin Unite.

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