The Government’s catch-up plans should give equal focus to emotional support amid reports that schools are experiencing an increase in pupils with mental health issues, a report says.
School leaders warn that the current approach to learning recovery is “misconceived and inadequate”, according to a policy briefing by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER).
A study, based on interviews with senior leaders in 50 schools serving predominantly deprived areas in England, found that incidents of poor behaviour have increased in some schools during the pandemic.
Most of the senior leaders who took part in the study report that their pupils’ wellbeing and mental health has deteriorated since the pandemic, with some pupils suffering from Covid-related anxiety.
Symptoms worsened among pupils who are already vulnerable, but senior leaders also have concerns about pupils who had no previous history of issues with their wellbeing, including younger children.
Issues affecting pupils include poor concentration, memory and stamina, lack of motivation and withdrawal, poor social skills and fractured friendships, weight gain, and speech and language problems.
Senior leaders have also seen an increase in separation anxiety (including an increase in school refusal), hypervigilance, germ phobia and performance anxiety (fear of failure), according to the interim findings.
The research, funded by Nuffield Foundation and carried out in May and early June this year, found that some senior leaders have seen an increase in actual or threatened self harm, including suicide.
One primary school leader said the number of children referred to Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) increased from one child before the pandemic to 11 afterwards.
Schools are putting measures in place to promote pupils’ emotional and mental health, but cannot always get the support they need from specialist services, the report warns.
The briefing note says: “The Government needs urgently to review the provision in place to address the surge in Covid-related anxiety and mental health issues among children and young people.”
Some senior leaders say that pupils’ behaviour is good or better than before the pandemic, but others reported increased issues with pupils’ behaviour and “lack of self-control”.
Several leaders point out that bad behaviour is often a sign of underlying issues, such as pupils experiencing trauma and being unable to self-regulate or communicate their feelings appropriately.
They say these issues have been exacerbated by pupils’ experiences during lockdown, while some say social distancing measures have led to aggression as some pupils are fed up with spending so much time with the same pupils.
One secondary school leader said: “That issue of not being able to get out and away from it (because they were constantly at home during lockdown)… can lead to behaviour issues, but we know that underneath it, it’s their wellbeing that is the problem.”
Last month, the Department for Education (DfE) announced an additional £1.4 billion of funding, on top of the £1.7 billion already pledged for catch-up, to help pupils in England make up for lost learning due to school closures.
The programme includes £1 billion to support up to six million, 15-hour tutoring courses for disadvantaged pupils, as well as an expansion of the 16-19 tuition fund.
School leaders see the emphasis on academic tutoring as the main catch-up strategy as “unhelpful” and they want an equal focus on emotional recovery and enrichment, the report says.
Due to infection control measures, many heads report that their schools have had to reduce or cease activities such as whole-school assemblies and performances, visitors, and extra-curricular clubs.
They say this is having a negative effect on pupils’ wellbeing and the community feeling of the school.
School leaders say that it will take time for pupils to recover from the effects of the pandemic with estimates ranging from around another year to seven years or more.
Caroline Sharp, research director at NFER and co-author of the paper, said: “Despite it being over three months since all children have returned to school full-time, our insights shows that mainstream education has not gone back to normal, due to the continuing impact of the pandemic.
“Most senior leaders we interviewed have expressed their widespread concern for their pupils’ wellbeing and mental health.
“They want to support their pupils, but are struggling to do so without adequate funding and being able to rely on specialist services.
“That is why they are calling on the Government to provide them and critical support services, with the necessary funding, and give them the independence, to enable them to best support the needs of young people.”
Josh Hillman, director of education at Nuffield Foundation said: “Whilst missed learning during the various partial school closures is of great concern, this report shows that pupils’ wellbeing and mental health have also been affected.”
He added: “In addition to tackling the academic impact of the pandemic, additional resource and support is needed to help schools respond to the significant challenges their students are facing in terms of anxiety and other mental health issues.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said it was “worrying” to hear that heads are reporting concerns about students with no previous history of issues with their mental health.
He said: “The Government rhetoric is to constantly refer to tutoring as the solution to educational disruption but this report hints at a more fundamental problem caused by the breakdown of normal routines in our schools and colleges during the pandemic.
“The education recovery funding so far announced by the Government is woefully inadequate and provides school and college leaders with precious little support to address the significant issues now affecting our young people, including their mental health and wellbeing.”
Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of school leaders union NAHT, said: “School leaders are deeply concerned about the impact the pandemic has had on children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing.
“Wellbeing must be at the heart of the recovery plans so it must be properly funded. Schools need this funding so that they can provide the support that their pupils need.”