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We need to respond to children’s distress signals

The number of children in distress is growing – and we don’t have an adequate system in place to support young people’s wellbeing

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The number of children in distress is growing – and we don’t have an adequate system in place to support young people’s wellbeing

Before the summer break, I attended a seminar in Cambridge. The topic – children in distress – seemed timely. There are, after all, as any teacher will tell you, plenty of them around, whether they are in schools in the leafy suburbs or in areas of poverty and crime.

It turned out that the seminar was marking the 50th anniversary of a book with the same title by Barbara Megson and Alec Clegg. Its publication caused quite a stir, as it revealed that back then our education system ignored the many children who – either because of disability, emotional challenges or poverty-induced deprivation – were unable to take full advantage of their schooling.

The seminar agreed that, despite our best efforts, the problem has grown over the intervening years. There are many more “children in distress” now, for various reasons. For instance, pupils now have to deal with all the hazards of social media, while some of their parents, in an accelerating world, are too busy or distracted to give them the time, conversation and clear boundaries every child deserves. What is more, children may go to a school where teachers are also distressed through working in a culture of fear induced by Ofsted and league tables.

“So what,” the seminar asked itself, “do we do about it?”

'We must stop children falling over the edge'

We need to consider a two-pronged approach – “providing ambulances” for casualties at the bottom of the cliff while also “building fences” at the top to prevent children falling over the edge. In the “ambulance category” is the need to have an adequate child and adolescent mental health service. Its present state in many parts of the country is parlous. The same could be said for the availability of foster parents and children’s homes, as well as the provision of well-staffed units for children at the extremes of SEN spectrums.

In the “fences” category, of course, are environmental influences such as housing and family support. But there is also “early diagnosis and intervention”, with system-wide provision of speech and language experts, educational psychologists, counselling services and home-school workers, and coordination between services such as health, housing and education. Staff CPD and reform of exams and inspection are also essentials.

For busy schools, what can be done on a daily basis? There is so much. One school I know collectively reviews all practices that affect pupil resilience and wellbeing. So, buddying, peer-tutoring, counselling and mentoring, extracurricular activities, all manner of student leadership and, of course, the timetable and rewards and sanctions are put under the microscope of staff and students.

As the headteacher put it: “Staff make a point of talking cheerfully to each other and students from the moment we arrive. This year we are trying something new. Form tutors are identifying one child each half term ‘most at risk’ and then heads of year, house leaders and SLT share out the names and make a point of talking to them casually every week to see how they are getting on.”

My bet is that they’ll have fewer children in distress when they next review the practice.


Sir Tim Brighouse is a former schools commissioner for London

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