The government’s catch-up plans should give equal focus to emotional support amid reports that schools are experiencing an increase in pupils with mental health issues, a report published today says.
School leaders warn that the current approach to learning recovery is “misconceived and inadequate”, according to a policy briefing by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER).
A study, based on interviews with senior leaders in 50 schools serving predominantly deprived areas in England, found that incidents of poor behaviour have increased in some schools during the pandemic.
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Most of the senior leaders who took part in the study reported that their pupils’ wellbeing and mental health had deteriorated during the pandemic, with some pupils suffering from Covid-related anxiety.
The impact of Covid on pupils' mental health and wellbeing
Symptoms had worsened among pupils who were already vulnerable, but senior leaders also had concerns about pupils who had no previous history of issues with their wellbeing, including younger children.
Issues affecting pupils included poor concentration, memory and stamina, lack of motivation and withdrawal, poor social skills and fractured friendships, weight gain, and speech and language problems.
Senior leaders have also seen an increase in separation anxiety (including an increase in school refusal), hypervigilance, germ phobia and performance anxiety (fear of failure), according to the interim findings.
The research, funded by Nuffield Foundation and carried out in May and early June this year, found that some senior leaders had seen an increase in actual or threatened self-harm, including suicide.
One primary school leader said the number of children referred to child and adolescent mental health services (Camhs) at their school had increased from one child before the pandemic to 11.
Schools are putting measures in place to promote pupils’ emotional and mental health, but cannot always get the support they need from specialist services, the report warns.
The briefing note says: “The government needs urgently to review the provision in place to address the surge in Covid-related anxiety and mental health issues among children and young people.”
Some senior leaders said that pupils’ behaviour was good or better than before the pandemic, but others reported increased issues with pupils’ behaviour and “lack of self-control”.
Several leaders pointed out that bad behaviour is often a sign of underlying issues, such as pupils experiencing trauma and being unable to self-regulate or communicate their feelings appropriately.
They said that these issues had been exacerbated by pupils’ experiences during lockdown, while some said that social distancing measures had led to aggression as some pupils were fed up with spending so much time with the same pupils.
One secondary school leader said: “That issue of not being able to get out and away from it (because they were constantly at home during lockdown)… can lead to behaviour issues, but we know that underneath it, it’s their wellbeing that is the problem.”
Last month, the Department for Education announced an additional £1.4 billion of funding, on top of the £1.7 billion already pledged for catch-up, to help pupils in England make up for lost learning due to school closures.
The programme includes £1 billion to support up to 6 million, 15-hour tutoring courses for disadvantaged pupils, as well as an expansion of the 16-19 tuition fund.
However, the report says that school leaders see the emphasis on academic tutoring as the main catch-up strategy as “unhelpful” and they want an equal focus on emotional recovery and enrichment.
Due to infection control measures, many heads reported that their schools had to reduce or cease activities such as whole-school assemblies and performances, visitors and extracurricular clubs.
They said this was having a negative effect on pupils’ wellbeing and the community feeling of the school.
School leaders said that it will take time for pupils to recover from the effects of the pandemic, with estimates ranging from around a year to seven years or more.
Responding to the report, Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, warned that education recovery “cannot be done on the cheap” and that the current £1.4 billion was “nowhere near enough” to support the learning and wellbeing needs of our children.
He said: “In order to empower schools to prioritise children’s wellbeing, we must see a change in the DfE’s priorities about what recovery can and should look like. We know what an important role schools play in helping children to regulate their emotions, build resilience and identify those who need more targeted or specialist support.
"Schools must have the time to do this alongside academic recovery and the curriculum must be flexible to adjust to the social and development needs of children and young people."
Geoff Barton, the Association of School and College Leaders' general secretary, said: “The government rhetoric is to constantly refer to tutoring as the solution to educational disruption but this report hints at a more fundamental problem caused by the breakdown of normal routines in our schools and colleges during the pandemic.”
The DfE has been contacted for comment.