The mental health of pupils is the “single biggest concern” of staff working in education, according to a new report by a union.
Findings from a poll of members, shared with The Independent, suggested this was considered the biggest problem facing the education sector, ahead of education recovery, the attainment gap and ongoing disruption caused by coronavirus.
Voice Community, the education branch of Community union, said the mental health of pupils was the “overwhelming concern” of the hundreds of school and early years staff surveyed.
It comes amid calls for catch-up plans for pupils to do more to encourage children’s wellbeing to help them recover from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The new report by Voice Community explored the findings of the poll – which asked members about their experiences of education in the pandemic and their thoughts about the future – and put forward recommendations for post-Covid recovery.
More than 600 teachers, teaching assistants, headteachers and early years practitioners in the UK were asked in February what they thought were the biggest challenges they faced.
“Mental health was the single biggest concern voiced by our members,” the union’s report said. “It was clear that the impact of coronavirus would be felt for a long time and that children would need to develop social skills and that the curriculum needed to support this.”
Education recovery, funding levels, staffing and the attainment gap were other issues frequently raised by members, according to the education branch of the union.
Geoff Barton, from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), another union, told The Independent: “Sadly, we are not surprised at the findings of this poll which reflect a deep concern in schools and colleges about the mental health and wellbeing of many children and young people in the wake of the pandemic.
“This was already an issue before the pandemic began, but over the past 14 months many young people have experienced greater poverty because of the economic impact of Covid on families, had to cope with the loss of loved ones, and endured lengthy periods of isolation because of lockdowns.”
As well as facing coronavirus restrictions over the past year in everyday life, such as socialising, most children stopped going into school during the lockdowns last spring and at the start of this year.
Experts have found tens of thousands more children have sought help for mental health problems since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr Barton added: “The government has announced a package of mental health support, but this comes against a background in which schools and colleges have been inadequately funded for many years, and of difficulties in accessing NHS children’s mental health services for young people with complex problems.”
Voice Community’s report said: “Schools are having to step in to fill the gap with the necessary support and funding out of already stretched education budgets.
“The bar for receiving mental wellbeing support has gone up, leaving many staff and learners showing early signs, without support. Early intervention in a school environment would help some of those who would otherwise go on to reach a crisis point.”
Last month, the government announced millions of pounds would go towards improving mental health support in schools to tackle the impact of the coronavirus pandemic by upgrading support available in education.
The week before that, NHS England said it was expanding its support in schools, with mental health teams ready to support more than one million children in the country and plans to increase this figure to around three million by 2023.
Voice Community said there should be trained counsellors in all schools, mental wellbeing training activities embedded into the curriculum and work to educate parents.
The Future of Education report also said education staff polled were concerned about the “social challenges facing students” and “had an unfavourable view of the government’s approach to education recovery”.
Kate Green, the shadow education secretary, told The Independent: “For months the Conservatives have ignored calls from teachers and parents to prioritise children’s wellbeing and social development as we emerge from the pandemic.”
“The government’s pathetic catch-up plan provides 10 times less investment than their own expert advisor says is needed with nothing to boost children’s wellbeing after the isolation of lockdown.”
The government has so far pumped more than £3bn into Covid-19 catch-up for pupils, including funding for summer schools and tutoring.
The recent £1.4bn package sparked backlash this week, with headteachers claiming it does not go far enough. The government’s education recovery commissioner resigned in protest.
A government spokesperson said: “Young people have faced unprecedented challenges over the past year and that’s why we announced a £3bn to boost learning, including £950m in additional funding for schools which they can use to support pupils’ mental health and wellbeing.”
They added: “We are also investing millions specifically to improve the mental health support available in education, including more mental health teams working with schools and colleges, funding to train a senior mental health staff lead in up to 7,800 settings and training from mental health experts to improve how staff, pupils and parents cope with additional pressures, bereavement, anxiety, stress or other emotional responses to the pandemic.”
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