2019 Autumn Term 2


  • A solid foundation
    Good schools are built on good teachers, but we face a severe shortage of teachers says Sam Sims, Research Fellow at UCL Institute of Education (IOE). Here, he explains the thinking around a new collaboration between ASCL and IOE to help with teachers' job satisfaction and retention. More
  • Getting educators on board
    Supporting another school or trust by joining its governing board offers a fantastic professional development opportunity for school leaders says Dominic Judge from Education and Employers. More
  • Smoke & mirrors?
    The long-awaited government spending round has been and gone, but what does it actually mean for your school? Is the government finally addressing the funding shortages in education, or just hiding behind a smokescreen? Here ASCL Funding Specialist, Julia Harnden, talks us through the detail. More
  • Change makers
    Gohar Khan, Director of Ethos at Didcot Girls' School in Oxford, shares her school's desire to create the next generation of female leaders. More
  • All in the mind
    Ruby Wax made her name as a writer and comedian but, in recent years, has become a vocal advocate for mental health and will give a keynote speech at ASCL's Annual Conference in 2020. She spoke to Julie Nightingale. More
  • Diverse thinking
    We need leaders and governors to reflect a society and a school population that is diverse and varied, and be all the richer for it says Geoff Barton. Here he highlights how we can all help to make that change. More
  • Our united vision
    This is the first in a new regular update in Leader to provide you with the latest information from our colleagues across the nation. ASCL is proud to represent school and college leaders from all over the UK. More
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Ruby Wax made her name as a writer and comedian but, in recent years, has become a vocal advocate for mental health and will give a keynote speech at ASCL’s Annual Conference in 2020. She spoke to Julie Nightingale.

All in the mind

Ruby Wax is midway through a national tour with her show, a stage version of her book How to Be Human: The manual, which explores what makes us tick and how our minds work. 

It’s a topic to which she’s been giving a lot of thought recently. Originally making her name in comedy and television in the 1980s and 1990s, she moved into medical health advocacy after experiencing periods of mental ill health and depression that she documented in her books and TV appearances.

While it’s encouraging to see so many celebrities speak up for the cause of better mental health, few – if any – have taken Ruby’s very scientific approach, which has found her delving deep into medical research, studying psychotherapy at Oxford and working with experts at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US to explore technological answers to emotional and psychological ills.

As well as her fund of personal anecdotes, her show also calls on two ‘expert witnesses’ to help explain what goes on in our heads – a monk, Gelong Thubten, talks about the mind while neuroscientist Ash Ranpura addresses the brain.

Ruby was also one of the pioneering promoters of mindfulness, the brand of meditation that has been widely taken up by individuals and organisations as a strategy for coping with the onslaught of stress, anxiety and related mental health problems.

A mindfulness trial programme was introduced by the government to 370 schools in England earlier this year and Ruby is not surprised by the technique’s take-up rate.

“To be honest, I would have been surprised if it had been just a fad because it is the only thing backed by empirical evidence of a change in the brain and of being able to lower the kind of stress we are talking about,” she says.

“We can’t tell when we’re going from neurotic work to exciting work; mindfulness is just a way of looking for the internal weather conditions. It’s a brain exercise of being able to say, ‘I’m frying now, I better do something about it.’”

Root causes of stress

For Ruby, one of the root causes of the stress and anxiety that afflicts adults and children alike is the value we place on staying busy. The fact that we “worship busy-ness” and that “people don’t really respect you if you’re not doing anything” is, she says, a fundamental problem.

“I was in a car today and the taxi driver asked me what I was going to do. If I had said ‘nothing’ the conversation would have stopped. He really wanted to hear how busy I was.”

Plenty of professions and roles – including teaching – are often seen as ‘stressful’ but Ruby reckons the problem isn’t related to a particular career choice and she rejects the idea of a link between creativity and stress, or the notion that artists are always ‘troubled’.

“Working in a coalmine is stressful or a really dull job wears you down. Showbusiness isn’t any more stressful,” she says.

Similarly, leaders are no more or less likely to be stressed than people in other jobs, she thinks, but they should be sensitive to the impact their state of mind and consequent behaviour has on the people around them.

“We all work as a team – we’re neural wifi – so you’re passing down whatever state you happen to be in to your employees, friends or whoever. If you walk into a room and it’s toxic, it might be because you brought it in there; rather than pointing the finger at others, people need to start learning how to self-regulate and be more aware.” 

She has her own vivid example of being affected by a ‘toxic’ presence in the shape of Donald Trump whom she famously interviewed in 2000 when he was just a wealthy businessman, rather than President of the United States.

Ruby was thrown off Donald’s plane when he took exception to her line of questioning.

“That was my worst showbiz moment because he terrified me,” she says. “He was frightening because he was angry and that spread to me so I asked idiotic questions.”

Many schools, parents and other experts have blamed social media for the rise in anxiety and stress among the young in particular but Ruby points out that many of the problems we are seeing now pre-date Facebook and the rest.

“I’m not an expert in this area but there was a problem with loneliness and over-achieving before social media came along,” she says. “This obsession with being popular and successful – we’re back to distraction because people don’t really want to focus on a life that’s out of control.”

For her new book, which includes a chapter on education, she has been visiting institutions in the UK and Finland where teaching and learning are being adjusted to avoid building the kind of pressure that can lead to mental health problems among children.

“People are forgetting that we have a limited capacity for taking in information. You can really harm a kid’s little brain if you are stuffing it too fast, too hard,” she says.

Learning in clusters

In Finnish schools, she notes children sit in clusters rather than rows facing forward, are encouraged to discuss and are not being constantly graded on their work.

“If a kid is suddenly interested in the music of the Middle Ages, they can follow that. And there’s no shame in not knowing things. There are circles within circles where kids will watch a conversation and then if they have something to add, they go into the closer circle. They are playing with structure and making education really exciting.”

She points, too, to the use of mindfulness in schools in the UK and programmes such as In-Reach, which “prepare the ground for children to learn”. Walking into those schools you can immediately feel the different atmosphere, she says.

In March, Ruby Wax will be sharing her experiences with ASCL members as the keynote speaker for the Annual Conference. Talks like this and her current tour may have serious subject matter but, in essence, she is still performing, she says, just as she always has done.

“What I’m doing now is traditional. This is the same job, it’s just that I’m talking about more interesting stuff,” she says laughing. “It is comedy – I’m not doing a lecture. And young people who don’t know I was in TV are coming because they like my books. I try to make everything funny.”

ASCLAnnual Conference
13–14 March 2020 in Birmingham
Book your place and find out more at

Julie Nightingale
Freelance Education Writer