The Government could miss a once in a generation opportunity to put mental health and wellbeing at the heart of the education system if it does not make changes when schools reopen their gates.
This is the warning from Barnardo’s in its report Time for a Clean Slate: Children’s Mental Health at the Heart of Education, which is released today (May 24).
The UK’s largest children’s charity works in schools across the country supporting pupils with their emotional health and wellbeing and says the Government must realise it cannot make them return to the ‘business as usual’ from the pre-pandemic days.
This is because the Covid-19 outbreak, as well as side effects of the measures to contain it, have exposed the country’s children and young people to an unprecedented level of trauma, loss and adversity.
Some children, who were already extremely vulnerable will have been badly affected.
For example, children and young people living in lockdown or socially isolating in challenging and unsafe home environments may have lost their ‘safe space’ at school. Some children and young people will have experienced domestic abuse, poverty or child abuse for the first time.
Others will be grieving for loved ones, and we know the virus has disproportionately affected BAME communities.
Some children will be fearful of catching the virus and others will be experiencing separation anxiety.
As schools start to return, Barnardo’s says they should be allowed to use at least a term as a ‘readjustment period’ where they can be flexible with the curriculum, so they can work through the emotional effects of the pandemic.
This would enable teachers to help their pupils reintegrate into the school environment, re-socialise with their friends, and change the structure of the day so there is more of a focus on pastoral care, play, creative outlets and outdoor activities.
The call comes as the results of a survey, undertaken by Barnardo’s for the report, revealed 88% of school staff said the pandemic is likely to have an effect on the mental health and wellbeing of their pupils.
And 26% said they did not feel confident they had the tools, skills or resources to support their pupils in this way.
Barnardo’s would also like to see the Government act on the proposal by the chairman of the Education Select Committee, Robert Halfon, to introduce a catch up pupil premium for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged pupils.
But this funding should not just be about ‘catching up’ academically and schools should be able to use it flexibly to support these pupils in a holistic way, including for support with mental health and wellbeing.
And the UK’s leading children’s charity is calling on the Government to go much further than this in the longer term.
It wants the Government to seize this opportunity to bring about a sea change in the education system – to prioritise child welfare and wellbeing, so that it is on a par with academic achievement.
With the current system weighing heavily on the side of academic performance, Barnardo’s is concerned that schools are finding it difficult to meet the needs of the most vulnerable pupils and to prioritise welfare and wellbeing.
This echoes the views of the school staff surveyed, with more than two thirds (67%) saying they want to see changes in the curriculum structure and exams process.
Barnardo’s Chief Executive Javed Khan said:
“When it comes to this pandemic, we are all in the same storm, but we are not in the same boat.
“We know children who were already vulnerable before the crisis have been badly affected, and with families now under increasing financial and emotional pressure, more children are now living in poverty and at risk of abuse. Many more are struggling with anxiety, depression and other mental health problems, now largely hidden from the view of teachers and professionals.
“When children return to school, there must be additional resource available to help overcome not just the ‘attainment gap’ but also the ‘trauma gap’ faced by vulnerable pupils.
“The Government should also take this once in a generation opportunity to rebalance the school system, recognising that children rely on school to keep them safe and well, just as much as they need it to pass exams.
“We urge the Government to work with schools, local authorities, the NHS and charities to place wellbeing at the heart of the curriculum and school culture, so that every child has the support they need to thrive.”