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

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:04 pm on 3rd February 2022.

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Photo of Sarah Olney Sarah Olney Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport) 3:04 pm, 3rd February 2022

I will try to be brief, Madam Deputy Speaker. I thank Robert Halfon for bringing this debate before the House today, because it is such an important issue. When I think about everything that is happening across Richmond Park as we emerge from the pandemic, this is the No. 1 issue in my constituency, particularly the mental health aspect. I have had lots of conversations with schools throughout the pandemic and as we have emerged from lockdown, and this is the most important thing, more than anything else.

The education catch-up funding has been very welcome and has been well used across my constituency, but it is the mental health impact of the lockdown that is having the biggest impact on our youngest citizens. When I speak to headteachers, I hear all sorts of stories. They tell me about the new reception class that started in September 2021: with these four and five-year-olds, so much of their lives has been spent in lockdown that they are suffering extreme separation anxiety from their parents. It is not unusual in any reception year to find that one or two children get anxious and teary about separating from their parents, but they have whole classes who are crying for hours, which is completely unprecedented. I fear for our very youngest as they are entering their school years.

Going up through primary school age, we are finding that, in the older years, the children who spent two years at home sat in front of laptops are finding it really difficult to play with each other. Small boys do not know how to play football in the playground any more. I do not know about anyone else, but it is those little details that I find really distressing, particularly as the mother of an eight-year-old son: the thought that our young people do not know how to play with each other. They do not know how to share in the classroom, or how to talk to each other. As we get through into secondary school, the impact of the past two years is really beginning to show in young people who have spent too much time on the internet over those years. They have become isolated and do not know how to reach out, and are really struggling with their self-image and their mental health. They have spent too much time looking at sites that are frankly unhelpful for their education. Misinformation has been a massive source of problems during this pandemic for all sorts of people, but for our young people most of all.

I want to pay my own tribute to all the teaching staff and everybody involved in education across Richmond and Kingston. They have been absolutely heroic and have really stepped up for our young people, and I am absolutely in awe of what they have achieved, but what is really coming through from them now is that, more and more, they are having to deal with mental health issues in the classroom. They are not trained to deal with those issues, and they have enough to do to catch up on the academic side, particularly for pupils who are approaching exams: there have been so many absences in this academic year, which is a real problem for those staff.

We need to broaden the mental health resources that are available in the community. We need more school nurses, and those nurses need to have training in mental health. We need to open up more access to child and adolescent mental health services, because the waiting lists are a real problem. We need adolescent mental health services at our GPs. We need to give parents more options so that, when they are at their wits’ end with how to help their children, they know where to go, so that they are going not to schools for help—schools that are ill-equipped to give it—but to a range of different sources across the community. I know that time is short, so if this is the only point I can make, please can we have more resources to help our young people with their mental health in schools and outside them? That, more than anything else, is what Richmond Park needs.