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Schools need the tools and resources to make effective mental health support a critical plank in education catch-up

Published

9 Jun 2021

‘A catch-up plan that works has to include the resources and ‘permission to prioritise’ for schools to make mental health a real focus.’ Dr Aleisha Clarke, EIF's head of what works in child mental health & wellbeing, sets out the strong case for additional mental health support for pupils alongside and underpinning efforts to boost children’s learning catch-up.

Last week’s announcement of the latest round of additional funding to support schools and pupils in their recovery from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has raised plenty of questions about the scale of investment required. Crucially, it also focused on tutoring as a means to support catch-up in learning and educational attainment, and provided no new funding or prioritisation for the other critical planks in a recovery plan that can really work for children and young people – particularly around supporting pupils’ mental health and wellbeing.

Mental health underpins effective learning at school. For example, we can see in pre-pandemic data that there is a clear link between good mental health and higher pass rates at GCSE level, with pupils who have experienced mental health problems earlier in their time at school being two to three times less likely to achieve the GCSE benchmark of five A*–C grades (or 9–4 in the new grading system in England). That’s why any school catch-up has to be done hand in hand with additional support for mental health.

Covid-19 has put more young people at risk of experiencing poor mental health. We know this from the data. According to 2020 data from the NHS, one in six young people aged 11 to 16 were identified as having a probable mental disorder, covering a range of emotional, behavioural and attentive problems. That’s five young people in a classroom of 30. Since data collection for this survey began in 1999, we have seen consistent rises in the incidence of mental health problems among young people.

And we know it from what teachers are seeing as pupils have returned to school. In a recent survey of over 700 teachers and school leaders conducted for EIF by NFER, 70% said they had observed a worsening condition for teenage pupils who were already known to be experiencing mental health problems, and 62% said they had teenage pupils presenting with mental health problems that they weren’t known to be experiencing before. This stands in stark contrast with just 4% who had observed no major changes over the last 12 months.

This matters now and for the future. Experiencing persistent emotional problems such as anxiety and depression can have a lasting impact on mental health, as well as a person’s education and employment prospects, physical health and future relationships. For instance, multiple studies provide evidence of a strong link between emotional problems during adolescence and an increased risk of depression and anxiety as an adult, or of falling out of education and employment altogether. One recent international study highlights how the teenage and young adult years are critical in the onset of mental disorders, with more than one-third of cases (35%) emerging before the age of 14, and nearly half (48.4%) by age 18. Much like the impacts of long Covid itself, the effects of experiencing poor mental health during adolescence are liable to linger and take root.

Schools have a unique role to play in helping to tackle this worsening crisis. And through our own surveys and talks with others in the sector, it is clear that schools and head teachers face a critical challenge in carving out time and space for mental health education and support. The current system weighs heavily on the side of academic learning and attainment, which makes it difficult for schools to find the time to meet the needs of their most vulnerable pupils and to provide the additional support for mental health and wellbeing which we know, in turn, is so essential to reinforcing a young person’s ability to focus, learn and achieve.

The current system weighs heavily on the side of academic learning and attainment, which makes it difficult for schools to find the time to meet the needs of their most vulnerable pupils and to provide the additional support for mental health and wellbeing which we know, in turn, is so essential to reinforcing a young person’s ability to focus, learn and achieve.

Next month, we will be publishing the findings from a major review of the evidence on addressing mental health concerns in adolescence, gathering data from over 30 systematic reviews and 90 primary studies. This research provides clear endorsement for the role of schools in raising awareness, building a supportive environment, and providing interventions where appropriate – and highlights the type of additional support that schools will need to make these efforts a success for pupils.

First, we have identified several interventions with good evidence of improving young people’s wellbeing, reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety, and reducing aggressive behaviour, bullying perpetration and victimisation. With the growing number and diversity of programmes and resources currently available to schools, many of which lack evidence of effectiveness, it is essential that national funding targets the implementation of interventions that have evidence of improving outcomes.

Second, there is evidence that more holistic or ‘whole school’ approaches, which integrate mental health and behavioural support into the day-to-day life of a school, can be effective. However, for this kind of universal provision to work well, teachers need additional training and professional development to ensure they have the skills and confidence required to provide an appropriate level of support and to identify young people who need more.

For some young people, more targeted support is necessary to address symptoms of depression, anxiety or stress. Here, the evidence shows that interventions are more likely to be effective when delivered by trained professionals, rather than teachers. And so schools need support to make good, evidence-informed choices between the wide range of options available, and the resources to bring in the right interventions to meet their pupils’ needs – including designated mental health support workers, as part of, or in addition to, existing mental health support teams.

A catch-up plan that works has to include the resources and ‘permission to prioritise’ for schools to make mental health a real focus. Without that, improving attainment through tutoring and other measures, especially among those who’ve fallen furthest behind over the past year, is unlikely to happen. By enabling and investing in school-based mental health and behavioural approaches, led by the evidence of what works, we can do more to help young people bounce back.

About the author

Dr Aleisha Clarke

Aleisha is head of what works, child mental health & wellbeing, at EIF.