How on earth will schools support children’s mental health post COVID-19?
With much focus on the gap in children’s academic learning during the past 12 months, it’s easy to forget that there’s a much more pressing issue at hand - children’s mental health. In this post, Steph Caswell considers how schools will be able to respond to such a demand, as well as the toll it may well take on teachers.
Post COVID return to school
It was with some relief that I waved my children off to school last week. Despite being a former teacher, home learning had been a challenge for all involved. Not only was I having to pull out some rusty knowledge on pie charts and simplifying algebra, I also had the joy of weekly food tech lessons with my 13-year old son. Just watching him attempt to crack eggs into a bowl gave me mild heart palpitations.
Not that I didn’t enjoy the cupcakes and the pasta bakes, but like many parents, I was trying to work too. Both my children have additional needs, so in amongst the throws of virtual learning, I also had to manage the odd meltdown from my autistic son whenever Google classroom refused to play nicely.
But it was my son with anxiety that troubled me the most. Why? Because on an almost daily basis he’d been telling me how much he didn’t want to return to school. A conversation we’d had on quite a regular basis since Year 4, when he asked me whether I could homeschool him permanently. And hey presto! Lockdown had given him a taste of the good stuff.
So as the 8th March loomed ever closer, intervention was needed. Luckily, I’m a former SENCO and had managed provision for children with mental health needs during that time. I’d also worked with some fantastic educational psychologists too. I was able to fall back on this experience and work on some strategies with my son to help him overcome his worries.
But it got me thinking. What about those parents who don’t have that knowledge or experience? Those who have children, like my son, who will struggle with the return to school? How on earth are schools going to support the many families who face a continued battle?
Mental health support
A recent report from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) says that ‘since the arrival of Covid-19, the prevalence of probable mental disorders has risen substantially to one in six young people, from one in nine in 2017.’
Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) are already stretched beyond the limit, with appointments sometimes taking up to 12-18 months to secure. In response to the post-COVID findings, the government announced a £500m funding package for mental health services in the UK. And while that’s not to be sniffed at completely, it only equates to around £250 per child with a diagnosable disorder. Hardly even scratching the surface, then.
And what about schools themselves? Regularly managing pupils with a wide range of mental health problems, it’s asking a lot of teachers and school leaders to support them effectively when budgets are tight and there’s limited access to professionals who can help. If a teacher is already regularly adopting the role of educator, parent, social worker and nurse, are we really asking them to add mental health professional to their remit too? Is that even fair? Surely their mental health will suffer as a result.
The government pledging £650m academic catch-up funding is all well and good - no one can deny that gaps for many pupils will be vast. But what about the impact on pupil mental health and wellbeing? Where’s the financial provision for that?
A troubling future
The effects of a global pandemic will last many years. It’s ridiculous to think otherwise. So for a generation who’ve already lost out on so many social and academic experiences, we owe it to them to support them with their mental health recovery. We’re in a position to do the right thing by them. To give them what they need to come out of this mentally strong.
So why aren’t we? I’m in full support of the EPI’s suggestion that the government release a £650m post-pandemic wellbeing funding package to schools, to match academic catch-up funding. Can you imagine how much support that could provide, especially for children who fail to meet diagnostic thresholds? It would also allow schools to hire specialist members of staff with the right training to meet these demands and take the pressure off teachers to try and manage the needs of these pupils.
Because if we did this, if we took mental health and wellbeing as seriously as the children need us to, then we could look them in the eye and know that we did right by them. We’d know that we hadn’t abandoned them when they needed us most.
But most importantly, pledging government funding would go far towards making mental health support in schools a major priority. Not just for this generation, but for future generations too.
And that would make an unquestionable amount of difference, right?