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Political pressure on children catching up educationally loses focus on mental health

Political pressure to prioritise ‘catching up’ educationally is at the expense of supporting students with mental health issues, according to two thirds of teachers polled by the NEU.

The survey of more than 10,000 teachers, support staff and school leaders found that 66% agreed that political pressure to ensure children catch up with missed education is to the detriment of their mental health. This is exacerbated by a lack of access to support services and sufficient staff.

Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: “The infrastructure to support young people with poor mental health was under considerable strain before Covid, and our survey shows that the situation has worsened over the past twelve months. More research will be necessary, but the increase is all too apparent.”

The British Psychological Society has previously warned that the emphasis on children ‘catching up’ at school is unhelpful, urging a focus instead on supporting the wellbeing and educational needs of all children.

The survey, which was conducted between 2-10 March 2021, found:

- 78% stated that mental health problems among children and young people have increased in past year.

- 34% of respondents said mental ill health had “increased greatly”.

- 62% believe government is treating the poor mental health of young people as a low priority.

- When asked to prioritise interventions that government “should make to support the recovery your pupils/students will require after missing face-to-face education,” 80% of respondents wanted to focus on recovery to address mental health and wellbeing impacts of the pandemic on their students.

When asked what barriers present themselves when attempting to support the mental health of students, the following emerged from the multiple-choice list:

- Pressure to prioritise the ‘catch up’ of lost learning - 66%

- Not being able to support pupils face-to face as a result of the pandemic – 65%

- Workload – 58%

- Lack of access to external support services (e.g. CAMHS, Specialist SEND assessment, Educational Psychologists) – 56%

- Insufficient numbers of staff providing pastoral support and care – 54%

"Respondents see a clear clash between pressures to ‘catch up’ on lost learning and the nurturing return which is most needed to ensure students are supported in their transition back to fully on-site learning. Other blockages in the system – all scoring over 50% - are high workload, access to specialist support services, and insufficient staffing,” said the report of the survey results.

“In their many additional comments, respondents were clear about the value of pastoral support and introducing new staff specifically to support pupil/student wellbeing,” it added.

The teachers, support staff and heads also shared the working practices they have been using over the past year to support students which included trauma-informed approach by all staff, regular communication via email and offering of 1:1 Zooms, random 1-2-1 check in calls – (not work focused, just checking in), ringing at-risk or struggling children most days to check in on their mental wellbeing and having time to sit and talk to them for a reasonable length of time and without having to constantly complete assessments on them.

Dr Mary Bousted added: “We agree with the government's youth mental health ambassador, Dr Alex George, when he says that young people who have been at home during lockdown need time and patience to re-integrate with on-site learning. That is why our recovery plan has set great store on making transition the priority, to be properly resourced through additional staff and smaller classes, and by reducing the curriculum and excessive accountability to create the space for that work to be done effectively. Through this we can guarantee individual attention and identify the needs of every student.

“But it is not exclusively those who have been learning from home who will have been affected with mental health issues. The disruption to life, to play, to sport, to everyday social interaction, has been stark. The message from education staff is clear – government has got to recognise that the wellbeing of young people is just as vital as their learning, and that wellbeing impacts significantly on learning.

“Schools and colleges want to play their part, and take very seriously the wellbeing of their students, but real-terms cuts to school funding have dramatically reduced the specialist support available to them in this important work. All too often the students most in need of support cannot access it.

“Government must listen to today's message from the frontline, which is clear and unambiguous. We must all play our part in ensuring that the legacy of Covid does not become a generation of young people with poor mental health. We need solutions for the long term,” she concluded.

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