Layla Moran: A mental health epidemic is underway in Britain’s schools

Research has found a 26 per cent increase in the number of children being referred to mental health services in the last five years, and that one in five is not being given support.

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This week is Children’s Mental Health Week, when schools and other organisations across the country will be thinking about how to help children and young people improve their mental wellbeing.

This is a great initiative and I know first-hand, as a former teacher, just how important it is. Children’s mental health is a chronically neglected issue, which has reached a crisis point. 

Research by the Education Policy Institute has found a 26 per cent increase in the number of children being referred to mental health services in the last five years, and that one in five is not being given support. The Public Accounts Committee that I sit on in parliament recently published a report on children’s and young people’s mental health services, which found evidence of many people facing unacceptably high waiting times for treatment; and of grave concerns about progress in expanding the children and young people’s mental health workforce.

While schools will be organising many wonderful activities this week to help raise young people’s awareness of mental health and improve well-being, I also feel strongly that there are deep-seated issues embedded in our education system that are contributing to this epidemic. I welcome the steps the Education Secretary has announced today to trial techniques to help young people manage their mental health, but this must be supported by measures to tackle more systemic issues at a national level. The government need to step up and play their part there too. 

Unsurprisingly, one root of this problem is funding. In 2017 almost a third of secondary schools were planning to cut mental health support for their pupils – in most cases because of budgetary pressures. The government has high hopes that their proposal to designate a teacher as the mental health lead in each school will address this. Yet, unless teachers are given proper training and allocated time in their incredibly busy work days to do this job properly, it simply isn’t fair to expect them to carry out the role of qualified mental health professionals.

In my view, another fundamental issue is the culture of high-stakes testing and inspections, which runs throughout our schools, putting the mental wellbeing of children at risk.

From a young age, pupils are put under immense amounts of pressure in high-stakes exams. Often, they’re made to feel like their whole future depends on how they perform in these narrowly focussed tests. This can be particularly distressing for children with special educational needs, or whose style of learning is simply not best captured by being made to sit in silence for hours at a time, reeling off facts they’ve learnt by heart. If it was up to me, we would scrap SATs now, to remove this burden from the youngest children.

Of course, the damaging pressure of competition and high-stakes testing isn’t limited to the impact on children themselves. It filters down to pupils because of the pressure on school leadership and teachers in turn, to perform well in Ofsted inspections and league tables.

We need to unpick this culture that runs throughout our education system, through a programme of ambitious reforms. This is not something each individual school can address on its own – it is the responsibility of government to think in an open-minded and ambitious way if they are serious about tackling this crisis.

Young Mind’s “Wise Up” campaign, which calls on Ofsted to put a greater emphasis on the mental health and wellbeing of pupils in their inspection framework, would be an excellent first step – I sincerely hope the Education Secretary will take note.

And in addition to overhauling exams, I’d also like to see every school in England with a fully qualified counsellor on the staff, whose responsibility it is to work with the pupils and staff who suffer from mental health and wellbeing issues.

The primary aim of our schools should be to help children grow into happy, healthy and confident adults, equipped with the skills to achieve their goals in life and work. But too often we are failing in this duty. When our schools are unable to identify or address these issues at an early stage, and in the worst cases exacerbate them, we are letting down our young people and undermining all the brilliant work our education system seeks to do.

Layla Moran is the Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West & Abingdon.