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One in six children have mental health issues but school support is lacking

Only a quarter of pupils have access to counsellors when it should be a national standard, say educational experts.

By Sarah Dawood

A lack of mental health support for children is impacting their future careers and lives, educational experts told MPs this week.

The education committee, set up to scrutinise the work of the Department for Education (DfE), interviewed representatives from schools, charities, economic foundations and the public sector on the state of young people’s well-being following the pandemic.

According to NHS England, the number of 6–16-year-olds with a mental health condition has risen from one in nine to one in six since 2017. Long NHS waiting lists also meant that 1,500 children in Scotland were waiting more than a year to be treated by Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) at the end of 2020, nearly triple the number in 2019.

There is an increased demand for in-school counsellors and mental health support teams, but the majority do not have access to this, said Mouhssin Ismail, school principal at the Newham Collegiate Sixth Form Centre (NCS), London. He told the committee that a lack of such resources results in increased school absences, underachievement and reduced academic success, ultimately impacting young people’s futures.

Not enough funding or provision

Government funding and legislation is not keeping up with demand, the education experts agreed. The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and DfE jointly published a consultation into children’s mental health in 2017, which set a target of providing mental health support teams to a quarter of school students in England by the end of 2023. These work between schools and CAMHS to provide early intervention on issues such as suicide prevention, eating disorders and self-harm.

Funding has since been increased, with a new target of a quarter of pupils expected to have access by the end of 2022 and over a third – 35 per cent – by the end of 2023.

This is a “low ambition”, said Richard Layard, well-being programme director within the London School of Economics (LSE), when government should be resourcing the whole of the UK. He added that there is an unreasonably “high threshold” to get a CAMHS referral, meaning many children do not qualify.

He suggested that a well-being unit be set up within the DfE, made up of experts, professionals and civil servants who could provide guidance to schools and help with interventions.

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There is an abundance of trained psychologists, but an additional challenge is drawing them into the education workforce, said Catherine Roche, CEO at children’s mental health charity Place2Be. She suggested a new apprenticeship for trained educational mental health professionals would help encourage more into school roles.

Gus O’Donnell, former cabinet secretary and author of Wellbeing and Policy, added that the Levelling Up white paper, which was released last week, focuses too heavily on “physical capital” such as roads and transport rather than “social capital”. “Inequalities in well-being should be tackled,” he said. “[Money should be allocated] to community and volunteer groups and help in schools.”

Similarly to how academic achievement is assessed and used to rank schools, he said that well-being levels should be “measured”, as better data collection would help provide solid evidence of who needs support and focused funding. “If you don’t measure it, you don’t treasure it,” he said. A programme called #BeWell in secondary schools across Greater Manchester adopted this approach, using a framework to measure well-being and consequent improvements.

More holistic range of subjects

Alongside specialist support, there should be better incorporation of well-being into the national curriculum for all students, experts agreed. Layard said that school years education should focus much more on “life skills” and personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) training, and teachers should specialise in the subject.

“The best predictor in childhood of a satisfying life is emotional health, not academic qualifications,” he told the committee. “If you want to improve academic standards, improving well-being is one of the best ways to do this. We have to overcome the idea that it is ‘either/or’.

“It’s incredible that [PSHE] is not a specialist subject in secondary schools,” he continued. “We don’t need to tear up the system – we’ve already got the facilities and framework. We just need a well-designed curriculum with really good materials and teachers trained to use them.”

While “soft skills” are often framed as being in replacement of or in opposition to traditional subjects, research has shown this is not the case – Public Health England published a study in 2014 that emphasised how learning social and emotional skills could have a positive impact on attainment and help students be more confident and organised, and better at handling challenges and stress.

Longer school days for extracurricular clubs

O’Donnell spoke about the benefits of extracurricular activities and said that investment into “enrichment” hobbies such as sports helped children develop social skills like teamwork.

“There’s a model of getting good A-levels, going to university and getting a high income – this is the wrong model,” he said. “Improving well-being also leads to [people] getting better jobs and a higher income. [Many employers] are looking for good interpersonal skills now – we’re going to need these when a lot of routine operations will be done by artificial intelligence.”

The idea of a longer school day to include such “enrichment” activities was suggested and met with mixed responses; Layard said there was a danger the time would be used for “extra exam preparation” instead, while Ismail welcomed the idea but raised the issue of funding and the workload on teachers – schools would need to rely on support from community groups and volunteers to make this work, he said.

If school volunteer programmes could be successfully set up, the repertoire of activities should be broadened, O’Donnell added, to include hobbies such as gaming and teaching about new tech like AI. “Different kids have different abilities and we’ve got to expand those,” he said.

Watch the full session here.

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