Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi refreshes calls for a new response to overcome the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic to the mental health crisis within our school system.
The Department for Education recently presented renewed concerns to the pitfalls of school resources to combat mental health disorders published on the online education hub. Building on the State of the Nation report 20/21, Zahawi has called for the development of “mental health check-ins” and to increase the number of mental health support teams in schools by 2023/24.
The basis of Zahawi’s refreshed concerns come from the problems identified in the State of the Nation report. The Department of Education has emphasised that ongoing impacts of the pandemic has resulted in an ever-present need to renew the call to develop strategies to tackle the developing pitfalls of the post-pandemic mental health crisis.
During Children’s Mental Health Week, the Department of Education launched their State of the Nation report. The report emphasised the crucial need for a wellbeing recovery plan over the course of the academic year 2020/21, which highlighted key trends in mental health. As the impact of the pandemic continues to be reviewed by the DofE, the report’s findings, strategies and aims of recovery are examined with a view to begin discussing solutions to this crisis.
“There is a mental health crisis with children and young people, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.”Chief Executive of Mind in Mid Herts, Sharn Tomlinson
The Government is concerned that the pandemic saw an upheaval of access to in-person education in 2020 and 2021. The actions taken to mitigate the spread of the virus saw a seismic increase to the development of mental health disorders in 2020. Cited recently by the Education Secretary, the State of the Nation report highlights that by autumn 2020, disadvantaged pupils in primary school were seven months behind their privileged peers. In addition to this, COVID-19 had reportedly increased the attainment gap by half to one month in excess of the pre-existing attainment gap.
In addition to the attainment gap, the report noted that during the strict lockdowns, school-aged children active in play dropped from 53.2% to 31.4%. Such sharp declines in physical play were reported to have directedly increased children’s levels of anxiety and childhood obesity. Notably, early years children are reported to currently need constant reassurance to try new things, engage in play and interact with other children.
Growing mental health issues in schools
The factors attributed to the issues of mental health problems in the report are numerous.
Fundamental concerns relate to access to resources for children during the pandemic, namely equipment to engage with online teaching. Furthermore, space and suitable housing environments have played a crucial role in creating what the Department of Education call a “suitable home learning environment.”
Another fundamental issue that is central to this discussion is access to secure housing for young students. Insecure housing played a vital role in creating a classroom environment for the lockdown periods. Despite some schools and pre-school education settings attempting to remain open during this period; the loss to face-to-face early education created a gap in childhood access to mental health providers in school and community centers.
Notably, teachers leaving the profession have emphasised the increase of mental health disorders in schools. One in five workers in early year provision in England have voiced a desire to leave the profession due to COVID-19 related stress. Schools play a crucial role in development of learning and mental wellbeing. Therefore, children not having access to teachers have created a lacuna in identifying childhood mental health disorders.
As such, it is apparent that the key underpinnings to mental health issues amongst pupils can be categorised as follows; housing insecurity, school resource insecurity and an unfortunate decline in teachers staying in the profession post pandemic.
A vital need for new innovative approaches
Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi stated that the Government is putting “an extra £2.3 billion into mental health services in the next year” with a focus to ‘”massively improve and protect the mental health of younger generations in the UK today.”
Further to this, Chief Executive of Mind in Mid Herts, Sharn Tomlinson, emphasised that “There is a mental health crisis with children and young people, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Tomlinson went on to advocate a “vital” need for “new innovative approaches” within schools and colleges.
A seismic, tangible and readily available action plan is crucial to overcoming the seminal challenges presented by the pandemic in relation to mental health in schools. The Government’s State of the Nation report address the pitfalls within nationwide resources for children and young people. Nevertheless, further engagement with teachers’ unions is needed for the Government response to directly and tangibly meet the on the ground concerns within the classroom.
Whilst it is positive to see the Government exploring innovative ideas to combat the mental health crisis in the classroom, further innovative thinking is needed to explore the linked challenges to childhood attainment in the classroom.
Mental health needs and resources typically align with the need for resource allocations for children living with dyslexia and SEND needs. Thus, to truly overcome the challenges exacerbated by the pandemic, the government must increase funding towards resources, plans and technologies that look to overcome the inability to successful learning whether it be mental health disorders, dyslexia and other SEND needs.