Government’s Education Catch-up and Mental Health Recovery Programmes

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:25 pm on 3rd February 2022.

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Photo of Nick Brown Nick Brown Chair, Finance Committee (Commons), Chair, Finance Committee (Commons) 2:25 pm, 3rd February 2022

It is a pleasure to follow Robert Halfon. We have debated this and related issues before, but today’s debate is particularly important to the life chances of our young constituents. If we believe in social mobility and trying to make things better for the next generation than they were for the last, this debate should be at the heart of those ambitions. I agree with a great deal of what the right hon. Gentleman has said, and accept that the Department, and indeed the Government in general, are making some movement in the direction in which I would like to see us go. Certainly there is common ground and much to be discussed between us.

As usual, these matters boil down to “but more needs to be done”. Let me briefly run through the issues that I think are at the heart of this. The education catch-up programme needs to reach into the schools. Eighty per cent. of schools in the north-east of England which responded to a recent survey—I accept that this information is patchy—said that the Government’s education recovery package was not sufficient to address the impact of the pandemic. More than half of them thought that the catch-up would take five years or more. Since the start of the pandemic, each pupil has had an average of 115 days out of school. The north-east of England saw the highest rise in absence compared with anywhere else in the country in the last year, and I therefore consider that our area ought to benefit from the highest response in the form of countervailing measures to help us to catch up with more prosperous parts of the United Kingdom.

I believe that the Government should focus on three key issues to prevent further disruption. I will observe your strictures on brevity, Madam Deputy Speaker. Those issues are testing, classroom ventilation and vaccines.

Testing schoolchildren regularly is essential to ensure that the infected are isolated and pupils can carry on learning in person. I want to see the Government increase communication with parents to raise awareness of the latest testing guidance, and to work with schools by providing tests for pupils to take home and to promote uptake.

Ventilation may seem a prosaic issue, but I am convinced that it is not. I am not critical of what the Government have done in this respect, but I do think that the approach should be more holistic. For some time now, we have been urging the Government to get proper ventilation systems into schools and colleges. Quality learning requires a comfortable environment, not one in which students and staff must wear coats to keep warm in cold classrooms. The Government must increase the supply now, and ensure that every school is provided with an adequate ventilation system.

The vaccine programme is a key tool—it would even be reasonable to argue that it was the key tool—in preventing further disruption to education. About 2 million 12 to 17-year-olds remain unvaccinated. Some 16 weeks after the vaccine was approved, about half of 12 to 15-year-olds have still not received their first jab. The programme is way behind schedule. Again, I do not want to be critical, because I know that people are trying and doing their best, but as ever, more needs to be done. We need to ramp up the vaccination of pupils.

That is my key take on the issue, but I will also say a few words on the mental health recovery programme. We debated it recently, but the issue is growing. Young people have endured such a long period away from in-person learning, largely because of the pandemic. A recent YoungMinds survey found that two thirds of young people aged 13 to 25 believe that the pandemic will have a negative long-term impact on their mental health. We must do everything we can to ameliorate that.

Record pressures on mental health services cause many sufferers to turn to A&E as a last resort, but by that stage, the issues that require attention can be significant and complex. It is a relatively ineffective way of trying to deal with mental health problems, even if there is provision in the A&E, which there is not always. Earlier intervention is possible and would have significant benefits.

Some 50% of mental health disorders are present by the age of 14 and that increases to 75% by the age of 18, but the provision of mental health services in schools is patchy. As we have debated before, there is no legal requirement on schools in England, although there is in other parts of the United Kingdom. School-based counselling is a proven intervention for children and young people experiencing psychological distress. As well as making for better health outcomes, early intervention makes economic sense and ought to relieve pressure later down the line for the national health service.

There is a successful school-based counselling pilot, of which I am very proud, in the Newcastle upon Tyne East constituency. I enthusiastically commend it and everyone involved, as I do the similar projects that are in place. The project’s early results are encouraging: it finds an improvement in educational attainment for around one in three pupils who received counselling. I support demands to make school-based counselling services more consistent across the country.

The Minister’s programme is moving towards my ideal outcome—it is not so far apart—so at least we are talking about the same sort of thing. I back the Labour party’s proposals to ensure that every school has specialist mental health support. If we were looking to spend money—I mean, are we looking to spend money?—to level up and help people, even perhaps because we believed in social mobility, surely the life chances of the very young would be the area in which to make a start. I am trying to build up the current picture of mental health support teams and how they work in practice with children, and the Minister generously offered us an opportunity to take that up with him when we have a meeting arranged.

I hope that my contribution to this important debate is accepted as being bipartisan and as an attempt to draw people together to make progress.