Teaching unions have joined the children’s commissioner Anne Longfield in calling for better mental health support for schoolchildren.
Ms Longfield’s third annual children's mental health report, published today, states that 40 per cent of schools are without any counselling services and that too little funding is available for schools to buy-in school counselling for all children who need it.
The report states that only about 1 in 4 of children with a diagnosable mental health issue was referred to services last year and that there is an "enormous postcode lottery" across the country, with some areas spending ten times more than others on children's mental health.
Mental health plan: Government keeps 'unambitious' plans for teams in and near schools
Ms Longfield said: “While the NHS has made tangible progress in the provision of mental health services for children, the current system is still far away from adequately meeting the needs of all of the estimated 12.8 per cent of children in England with mental health problems – or the many more children who fall just below the threshold for clinical diagnosis.”
The report highlights “particular improvement” in eating disorder services where the number of children accessing services has increased by almost 50 per cent since 2016/17.
However, it says children only receive 10 per cent of total national mental health spending despite making up 20 per cent of the population.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT school leaders’ union, said: “Schools are on the frontline when it comes to children’s mental health, but school staff are not qualified medical specialists, nor should they be expected to be.
“Where schools consider that a pupil’s needs go beyond their experience and expertise, their role is to refer those pupils to other professionals to address those needs, and they should be able to expect timely and effective support. However, the capacity of children’s and young people’s mental health services is insufficient to support the children referred to them, particularly at an early stage.
“Getting help as early as possible is vital when it comes to mental health, otherwise there’s a risk that a young person’s situation will become a crisis."
Ms Longfield also identified “a chasm” between what children need and what is being provided, and said that a "decent" mental health service for all children was “still a decade away”.
In her report, she says: "It could be argued that schools ought to provide and fund in-school counselling... many in-school counselling packages can be acquired for as little as £500 per child and schools would benefit from providing this support in reductions in problematic behaviour and potentially in improvement in educational attainment."
Mary Bousted, joint-general secretary of the NEU teaching union, said: “The findings of this report are further evidence of the chronic underfunding of children’s mental health services and the lack of available support for so many children and young people who need it.
“We agree with the children’s commissioner’s analysis that the government plans are not ambitious enough to ensure that we have a mental health system that meets the needs of all children.
“There is a clear need to end the postcode lottery of provision and ensure there is a comprehensive and joined-up approach to mental health support in every area.
"Schools have a role to play and must be part of the strategy to address the current lack of both specialist and low-level mental health services for children and young people."
Mental health minister Nadine Dorries said: “As the Children’s Commissioner highlights, major improvements to children and young people’s mental health care are already well underway, driving forward progress so every child can access the high-quality care they need and deserve.
“Spending on children’s mental health is growing faster than spending overall in the NHS, backed by an extra £2.3 billion investment in mental health per year.
“We’re rolling out dedicated mental health support teams in schools and trailing trialling four-week waiting times in the NHS, so they have quicker access to an increased range of support and treatment when they need it.”