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Experts call for ‘compassion training’ for pupils in catch-up plans

Exclusive: Group calls for students and staff to be given ‘mental tools’ to ‘flourish in post-Covid society’

Zoe Tidman
Friday 30 April 2021 20:57 BST
Experts have called for compassion training for pupils in light of the Covid pandemic
Experts have called for compassion training for pupils in light of the Covid pandemic (Getty Images)

Experts have called for pupils to receive “compassion training” under plans aimed at making up for education lost due to the Covid pandemic.

A leading group of academics and psychologists will write to the education recovery commissioner urging him to make sure young people and their teachers are “provided with the mental tools to overcome stress and trauma”.

The letter, seen by The Independent, urged Sir Kevan Collins to include “compassion-based training and coaching” for students and staff in both primary and secondary schools in his catch-up plans. 

The group - which includes education experts and clinical psychologists - said pupils have experienced “enormous stress, pressure, and disruption” due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which kept most children at home during two national lockdowns and changed the way exam results are graded.

They cited data showing a greater proportion of five to 16-year-olds were identified with mental health problems last July compared to in 2017, as well as a poll suggesting 52 per cent of teachers felt their mental health declined due to Covid.

“Many individuals, especially those with underlying anxiety and depression, will find it very hard to readjust to ‘post-Covid’ living,” they said. “They may fear interacting with others, struggle to resocialise or be very resistant to change.”

The letter - signed by around 40 experts - said there were “innumerable mental challenges to be navigated” over bringing pupils and teachers back to a school environment and to make sure their education “will not suffer because of Covid”.

The education recovery commissioner is currently looking at ways to help children “catch-up” after the disruption of the past year.

In a call for compassion training to be included in catch-up plans, experts said one randomised control trial found it can increase overall happiness, while one review said it can improve interpersonal relations.

One research paper cited in their letter said compassion training can “change the brain’s neurophysiology” in a way that helps “to overcome trauma and improve resilience”, they said.

“As a community of psychologists we want to work with you to ensure that this generation’s children - and teachers - are provided with the mental tools to overcome stress and trauma and flourish in the post-Covid society,” the group added.

It has been signed by experts including Professor Peter Smith, an emeritus professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, Professor Colin Diamond CBE from the University of Birmingham’s School of Education and Dr Frances Maratos from the University of Derby’s School of Psychology.

The school minister told MPs this week the education recovery tsar would reveal more about his recommendations for helping children recover learning lost due to the pandemic in the summer term.

Nick Gibb also said longer school days were “intuitive” when trying to make up for lost time in education due to Covid.

He told the education select committee on Thursday this is something the education recovery commissioner - appointed earlier this year to oversee the government’s catch-up programme - is “looking at very seriously”.

Earlier this year, Sir Kevan said extra hours for sports and music would also need to be considered alongside academic study to tackle the impact of Covid-19 on children.

He said teachers would be asked to “increase learning time for children” and to go over content that may have been missed.

A coalition of headteachers, parents and MP urged the government earlier this week pause formal tests forprimary school pupils in England to give students time needed to catch-up amid the disruption of the coronavirus pandemic.

Experts have also called for children’s play to be prioritised instead of extra schooling, following months of restrictions on socialising.

A government spokesperson said: “We know young people have faced unprecedented challenges over the past year - including with wellbeing - which is why support for pupil mental health is a vital part of the recovery.

“We have announced £1.7bn in ambitious plans to boost learning, including £950m additional funding for schools, which they can use to support pupils’ mental health and wellbeing.”

They said more than 90 per cent of local authorities have said they are delivering extra training and support as a result of the government’s Wellbeing for Education Return programme, which sees mental health experts help schools to improve support for those coping with bereavement, anxiety and stress due to the pandemic.

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