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

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:34 pm on 3rd February 2022.

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Photo of Mark Fletcher Mark Fletcher Conservative, Bolsover 2:34 pm, 3rd February 2022

It is an honour to follow Mr Brown and my right hon. Friend Robert Halfon, who gave an excellent speech outlining the scale of the problem we are looking to solve.

In my two years and one month as the Member of Parliament for Bolsover, we have had many divisions and many changes to our country. However, what was hardest to support, and which I probably regret the most, was closing schools to the majority of pupils. Bolsover, as the levelling up White Paper outlined, is already behind the rest of Derbyshire and the east midlands. In hindsight, it is difficult to support what we did to schools and I think I speak for many hon. Members on that front.

The challenge for our schools, teachers and families, of finding a way through to catching up, is incredibly difficult. I echo my right hon. Friend’s comments and thank all the teachers and headteachers who, over the past couple of years, have continued to go above and beyond. The scale of the challenge that headteachers face is as big now as it was then, because they continue to lose staff to omicron and so on. It is a constantly shifting jigsaw. We should not lose sight of the fact that they are trying to build a recovery on quicksand, because the situation is shifting so much at the moment.

One very positive development worth noting is that we are again talking about mental health. There has been a total transformation in society over the last 10 years or so in how open we are in discussing mental health. That is a massively positive thing. In recent weeks and months, I visited a number of my schools. The issues fed back to me on attainment, behaviour and mental health were notable. It is amazing how many of my primary schools said that when children, particularly the youngest, returned, they were unable to share space, toys and resources. That is a massive challenge because of covid. More than one headteacher has used the word “feral” to describe behaviour. Pupils returned in a state which meant they really had to be managed in a completely different way and on a scale that schools have not had to do before.

I have seen various hugely impressive approaches to this issue. Bolsover Infant School has taken a back-to-basics approach and I saw last week how that is working. Palterton Primary School has just won an award for its use of physical education. One could see from the behaviour in the school that it was having a huge impact. Other creative ideas, such as the use of forest schools—I say that nervously, as my hon. Friend Jonathan Gullis sits in front of me and does not like such things—have been used by Shirland Primary School and a primary school in Langwith. They have been shown to have a hugely positive impact.

This is the scale of the challenge: record high demands in NHS England data for accessing child mental health services; a 37% increase in child mental health service referrals between April 2020 and March 2021; and a 59% increase in referrals for children with eating disorders compared to previous years. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow said, there is a very clear division between where that does and does not happen. Those who are most affected are those from the worst backgrounds. We must not lose sight of that.

I appreciate that the Government, with £5 billion investment, are putting everything they can into catching up. Two days ago, Derbyshire was identified as an education investment area, which is a hugely important step. I note within that the provisions for additional sixth forms. I know the Minister is very keen to help me deliver a sixth form for my area, because we have no post-16 provision in my constituency. I have to say I did rather like the idea of a longer school day. That is a very good proposal and I am happy to have a go in Bolsover, but my headteachers may disagree.

I will, if I may, just finish by saying that I have had some feedback on the tutoring fund, which is that it is very difficult to make it work locally: there is either a lack of suppliers or some teachers are having to go on training, which takes them out of the classroom, making it a bit of a tick-box exercise. Some schools are even suggesting that they might give that funding back, which seems rather perverse to me. I would appreciate it if the Minister commented on that and could meet me to discuss that issue. The scale of the challenge facing schools and headteachers is incredibly difficult, but we do need to make sure that this is a priority, because areas such as Bolsover were already behind educationally and it is vital that we catch up, and that is a real challenge.