Bereaved pupils are being let down by "patchy" or non-existent provision for them in schools, according to a new study by the University of Cambridge's faculty of education.
The review found a "somewhat random approach" to supporting bereaved children in schools. Some teachers reported avoiding trying to help all together, as they feared doing more harm than good.
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A significant number of pupils experience bereavement, with 1 in 29 children, or one child in every class, experiencing the loss of a sibling or parent.
Grief can have significant consequences for pupils’ physical and mental health, the study – Consequences of childhood bereavement in the context of the British school system – says.
It was conducted on behalf of childhood bereavement charity Winston’s Wish, and states that while "grief is not an illness", bereavement can have profound effects on children’s well-being, with some children experiencing low self-esteem, anger and insomnia.
The report says that losing a family member makes pupils more likely to engage in risky behaviour. Bereaved pupils are more likely to participate in bullying or assaults, as well as being more vulnerable to bullying themselves.
The researchers suggest that the UK’s "highly pressured" school environment may make it more difficult to schools to support their most vulnerable pupils.
The study said inequity in British schools could particularly affect bereaved pupils, as children from disadvantaged backgrounds are at greater risk of losing a loved one.
Winston’s Wish called for all UK schools to develop a bereavement plan. While a small number of schools were found to have a "planned, managed and holistic response to bereavement", a lack of clarity over government and school policy on bereavement led to "both confusion and disagreement on the forms of support schools should offer".
The report found the social context of bereaved children is highly important in supporting them through their grief. Having someone to talk to and "share difficult thoughts" with was shown to increase children’s resilience, making it less likely for them to engage in risky behaviour.
Fergus Crow, Chief Executive of Winston’s Wish, said: “This report is a wake-up call.
“Until we get to a point when we can say with certainty that every school has a plan in place to help the bereaved children in their classrooms then we are letting children down. A school bereavement policy is not a luxury, it is an absolute essential.”
Winston’s Wish advises schools to download its free guide on supporting bereaved children, and called on Ofsted to ensure its revised Inspection Framework takes the impact of grief on children into account.
Professor Colleen McLaughlin of the University of Cambridge's faculty of education, said: “Our review of research reinforces that grief itself is not an illness.
"The path that a child takes after the death of a parent or sibling is dependent on the context and multiple aspects. Some pathways make young people very vulnerable, while others do not. Support in the environment is vital, and schools are key in this."