A government pilot scheme intended to improve mental health by training pupils in peer support was hampered by "a lack of staff time, timetabling and space issues", an evaluation has found.
More than a third (38 per cent) of organisations that responded to a survey following the peer-to-peer support pilot, run by the Department for Education (DfE), cited "difficulties with timetabling" as a barrier to delivering support, while an equal proportion said there was a "lack of staff time" to oversee the scheme.
The pilot, trialled in 100 primary, secondary and special schools, as well as colleges and community organisations, involved testing various peer-to-peer mentoring models.
Tes mental health hub: News, views and advice on mental health
New ideas: The school dogs improving pupils’ welfare
The programmes were overseen by "pilot leads" who often led the supervision, of which roughly one-third (32 per cent) were headteachers, or deputy/assistant headteachers, and one in five (22 per cent) were teachers. The remainder were special educational needs and inclusion coordinators, senior managers, or staff with pastoral, community and welfare roles.
An evaluation of the pilot, carried out by researchers at Ecorys UK, found that – while the "vast majority" of pilot leads taking part in an initial survey said they were planning to offer ongoing supervision of peer mentoring sessions – "many struggled to do so in practice".
In a number of cases, when schools committed to frequent group supervision overseen by the pilot lead and safeguarding officer, other commitments meant that "doubling-up was infeasible", and several sessions were cancelled or postponed.
And some schools found that supervision plans were "unsustainable" on a week-to-week basis, as teachers were busy with packed schedules.
The evaluation report said: "Capacity and resourcing issues were the most commonly reported barriers.
"Over one-third of pilot leads reported challenges relating to a lack of staff time, timetabling and space issues, and difficulties arising from resource constraints.
"Where pilot organisations had opted not to provide peer support beyond the programme, this was mainly due to capacity and resource constraints, eg pertaining to funding, staffing capacity, and support mechanisms."
Researchers stated later in the report: "It is telling that, while almost all pilot organisations planned to offer supervision to peer mentors, many struggled to do so in practice, while a few reported that they had not set a supervisory framework in place.
"The staff interviews showed that the reasons varied from a perception that formal supervision was not necessary, to challenges with staffing capacity. In some instances, supervision was planned but proved unsustainable on a week-to-week basis around the schedules of the school-based professionals overseeing the pilots.
"Clearly, there is some potential cause for concern if capacity issues are a main factor determining the level of oversight set in place for peer support within some schools, rather than judgements about acceptable risk."
Despite the issues with staff capacity, the vast majority of pilot leaders (84 per cent) said they were planning to continue running a peer support programme after the pilot.
Schools minister Nick Gibb said: "School or college should be a place where pupils feel safe and supported to learn, so it’s encouraging to see the number of schools recognising the value of the peer-to-peer mentoring project, where pupils look out for their classmates’ wellbeing through supportive conversations.
"Understanding what works will help us improve the support available for every pupil. Studies like these are one of many ways we are promoting wellbeing in schools, including through the introduction of compulsory health education from September, teaching pupils what good mental health looks like and how to seek help when needed."