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School leaders report COVID-related anxiety in schools and rise in self-harm

Most senior school leaders have reported that some of their pupils are suffering from COVID-related anxiety, while a substantial minority have seen an increase in incidents of self-harm.

The National Foundation for Educational Research report shows that schools are experiencing an increase in pupils with mental health issues, social distancing is posing a variety of challenges to classroom teaching, and that school leaders feel the government’s approach to learning recovery is misconceived.

“The over-riding message from the senior school leaders who took part, is that they need the funding, support and autonomy to make decisions in the best interests of their pupils. They also call on the government to provide clear guidance on future plans for assessment and accountability, and to take urgent action to free up capacity in critical health and social services for children and their families,” said the report.

The report highlights that:

  • Most pupils have been back in school full time since 8th March 2021, but education is hardly back to normal.
  • Schools are supporting children to recover both academically and in terms of their wellbeing, but this is a long-term undertaking made more challenging by measures to reduce Covid-19 infection.
  • Most senior leaders report that some of their pupils are suffering from Covid-related anxiety. Concerningly, a substantial minority report an increase in incidents of self-harm.
  • Schools are putting measures in place to promote pupils’ emotional and mental health, and would like to do more.
  • Schools are finding it difficult to access support from specialist services, such as Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), speech and language and social services.
  • School leaders say that the pupils most affected by the pandemic were already vulnerable, including those with challenging home circumstances and special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). However, wellbeing and mental health issues are affecting pupils not previously identified as vulnerable too.

Some senior leaders say that pupils’ behaviour is good or better than before, but some report an increase in incidents of poor behaviour and lack of self-control.

Social distancing is posing a variety of challenges to the quality of teaching and learning, with little interaction between pupils. There has also been a decline in activities such as creative arts, sports and trips, largely due to infection control measures.

“School leaders feel the government’s current approach to learning recovery is misconceived. They see the emphasis on academic ‘catch up’ as unhelpful and want an equal focus on emotional/wellbeing recovery and enrichment alongside academic catch up. They want the government to provide adequate funding for recovery over a period of years and to allow schools to use it flexibly,” the report said.

Caroline Sharp, Research Director at NFER, and Co-Author of the mainstream schools’ policy briefing said: “Despite it being over three months since all children have returned to school full-time, our insights shows that mainstream education has not gone back to normal, due to the continuing impact of the pandemic.

“Most senior leaders we interviewed have expressed their widespread concern for their pupils’ wellbeing and mental health. They want to support their pupils, but are struggling to do so without adequate funding and being able to rely on specialist services. That is why they are calling on the government to provide them and critical support services, with the necessary funding, and give them the independence, to enable them to best support the needs of young people.”

The report makes a number of recommendations to target mental health and wellbeing in schools. The government should urgently review the provision in place to address the surge in Covid-related anxiety and mental health issues among children and young people. Further research could help to quantify quite how much additional funding and support is needed across the country.

The government should consider how best to support schools in providing health and wellbeing services as part of a joined-up plan, particularly those serving deprived communities.

The report welcomes the government’s funding of £79 million investment to help children access community mental health but says there appears to be a need to increase investment in specialist mental health (CAMHS), speech and language and social care for children, young people and families, so they are not left without support.

The Department for Education should also recognise the pressures that school staff are still facing and ensure that staff wellbeing and workload are properly considered in policy development.

Catch up funding should also be provided more holistically and not just confined to academic needs. Senior leaders want the freedom and flexibility to deploy funds to support their pupils in the most appropriate ways within their contexts – for example schools with many anxious pupils may need to devote more resources to wellbeing support.

There needs to be a long-term proactive assessment and support plan, focused on all affected cohorts as they move through the system. This should encompass curriculum, assessment and accountability; and include plans for a variety of different scenarios, such as in the event of further periods of school closure.

Josh Hillman, Director of Education at the Nuffield Foundation, which funded the report, said: "Whilst missed learning during the various partial school closures is of great concern, this report shows that pupils’ well-being and mental health have also been affected.

“The findings echo Nuffield-funded research from the ISER at the University of Essex which found that school closures had a significant negative impact on children’s mental health.

“Social distancing in schools has made interactions between teachers and pupils and group work much harder and enrichment beyond the core curriculum has been more limited.

“In addition to tackling the academic impact of the pandemic, additional resource and support is needed to help schools respond to the significant challenges their students are facing in terms of anxiety and other mental health issues,” he concluded.

Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “School leaders are deeply concerned about the impact the pandemic has had on children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing.

“Wellbeing must be at the heart of the recovery plans, as identified by NAHT in our seven-point recovery blueprint, so it must be properly funded. Schools need this funding so that they can provide the support that their pupils need.

“There will be children and young people for whom the impact of the pandemic has created more serious levels of concern. These pupils may need additional, more targeted support and they will likely need more specialist help from health or social care services. These services were stretched before the pandemic and government must ensure their capacity is increased. It is vital that schools are able to access that support for their pupils quickly and that there is help available for parents too,” he concluded.

Recovering from Covid-19: What Pupils and Schools Need Now - Policy Briefing

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