Support for Bereaved Children

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:01 pm on 14 September 2023.

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Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education) 3:01, 14 September 2023

May I congratulate Christine Jardine on securing this debate on an important subject, and on her very poignant opening speech, informed as it was by her personal experiences? She made the important point that children need support to navigate life after bereavement, during and beyond the immediate period of their loss. As she said, losing a loved one is a lifelong challenge for a child, or indeed for any person.

The Government are committed to ensuring that bereaved children get the help that they need. We are always looking for ways to improve support and access to it, and to ensure that families are aware of such help. A family bereavement is devastating for anyone, but especially for children. Bereavement turns a child’s life upside down and can have profound and far-reaching consequences that may affect their mental health, their wellbeing and their academic performance, meaning that they require additional support.

I listened carefully to the powerful and moving speech by Taiwo Owatemi, who I know is currently attending a Westminster Hall debate on kinship carers. Losing her father as a young child was clearly devastating for her. The lack of empathetic support at school clearly compounded that hurt, but her family, her friends and the Church were her salvation. To lose her brother in her late teens, at the time of her A-level exams, was clearly overwhelming for her. In those circumstances, exam boards will use special consideration to reflect the impact of bereavement on a candidate’s performance in exams.

The hon. Members for Coventry North West and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) mentioned the financial consequences of losing a parent. Bereavement support payments provide short-term financial support to working-age people with dependent children whose spouse, civil partner or partner is deceased. As the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran pointed out, it consists of an initial lump sum and then up to 18 instalments, with higher amounts paid for those with children.

No one experiences grief in the same way, and children are no different in this respect. Not all children will need access to services when they experience bereavement, due to the support they may receive through their family and wider community, but where support from early help services is required, the Government are committed to ensuring that it is provided.

Jim Shannon, in a speech again based on personal experience, helpfully highlighted the role of the voluntary sector. It plays a vital role in supporting schools, children’s social care and other services that can signpost children to support and help them find it. We are always looking for ways to support all children, and the support provided by Government is complemented by the tremendous work of the voluntary sector, some of which has been inspired by personal experience of bereavement. For instance, I am incredibly grateful to the Childhood Bereavement Network and Papyrus for working with us on the review of the relationships, sex and health education statutory guidance. Recently, the Minister for the School System and Student Finance met Andrew Strauss to discuss the important work of the Ruth Strauss Foundation. The foundation does valuable work in preparing children and families for the bereavement of a parent, particularly families with a parent who has a terminal condition.

As the former Minister for Children, Families and Wellbeing, my right hon. Friend Claire Coutinho, set out in the Westminster Hall debate on this subject in March, there are no official statistics on the number of bereaved children in the UK. The Childhood Bereavement Network estimates that 26,900 parents die each year in the UK, leaving approximately 46,000 dependent children under the age of 17. Those figures are based on sources such as the census and mortality statistics, in the absence of any other data, so they are only an estimate, as Members have pointed out. However, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh West said, it is not just the loss of a parent; the loss of any loved one—a sibling or a close friend, for example—can have a deep and lasting impact on a child.

Families provide the love and support that we all know children need, and Government are committed to supporting families, including through the most difficult times. Early help services—a key plank of our reforms announced in “Stable Homes, Built on Love” earlier this year—play an important role in supporting families, and they can be used in some cases to help children through bereavement. Central to the Government’s ambitious plans to reform children’s social care is family help, which will provide effective and meaningful support for families. Multidisciplinary teams will work with local partners to meet the whole needs of a family.

As set out when we published “Stable Homes, Built on Love”, the Government are providing over £45 million of additional funding to pathfind family help and build on the strengths of existing early help services. We recently announced Dorset, Lincolnshire and Wolverhampton as the three local authorities that will be involved in the first wave of the Families First for Children pathfinder.

Our work to reform children’s social care builds on our wider work to support families, including the £695 million Supporting Families programme, which this year sees its 10th anniversary. Through that programme, we have supported over 650,000 vulnerable families through whole-family working to achieve positive and, we hope, sustainable outcomes. The programme has put whole-family working and early help at the heart of the local offer for families.

Key to our strategy for supporting families is the £300 million to establish family hubs and transform Start for Life services in 75 local authorities. Family hubs join up services locally to improve access to services, improve the connections between families, professionals, services and providers, and strengthen the relationships that provide the foundation for happy and productive lives. Family hubs will bring together services for children from conception to adulthood, with a great Start for Life offer at their heart. Family hubs are now opening, with the majority having opened by the summer, and they will be delivering all the programme’s expectations by the end of the funding period in March 2025. We have published guidance for participating local authorities.

As was referred to a number of times during the debate, we know that bereavement can have a significant impact on mental health, requiring specialist support. We are expanding specialist mental health support by spending an additional £2.3 billion a year—we are putting that into mental health services—by March 2024, which will mean 345,000 more children and young people accessing mental health support per year. We are also introducing mental health support teams to support schools and students across the country. Those teams offer support to children experiencing common mental health issues such as anxiety and low mood, and facilitate smoother access to external specialist support. As of April 2023, mental health support teams covered 35% of pupils in schools, and we are extending the coverage of those teams to an estimated 44% by the end of this financial year and at least 50% by the end of March 2025.

Schools and teachers are often a first source of support for children in tough times, as Catherine McKinnell mentioned. I am grateful for what they do to provide effective and sensitive pastoral care, although it is important to remember that they cannot be expected to provide specialist support: as she pointed out, they are not mental health, bereavement or trauma specialists. However, teachers know their pupils best, so they are in a position to decide on the pastoral support that they might need. We are offering all schools and colleges a grant to train a senior mental health lead to help schools to put informed support in place, drawing on specialists and working with families where needed. More than 13,800 schools and colleges have now received a senior mental health lead training grant, including more than seven in 10 state-funded secondary schools.

In addition, over 14,000 schools and colleges in England have benefited from the wellbeing for education recovery and wellbeing for education return programmes. Those programmes provide free, expert training support and resources for staff dealing with children and young people who are dealing with additional pressures from covid-19, including a focus on supporting pupils with bereavement. During the covid-19 pandemic, we provided a list of resources for schools to draw on to support children’s mental health, including the Childhood Bereavement Network, Hope Again, and resources from the Anna Freud Centre on supporting children dealing with loss and bereavement.

Health education—taught as part of relationships, sex and health education—became statutory in schools in 2020, and through the mental wellbeing topic, pupils are taught a range of content relevant to dealing with bereavement. That includes recognising and talking about emotions and how to judge whether what they are feeling and how they are behaving is appropriate and proportionate. It is important that children know where and how to seek support, including whom in school they should speak to if they are worried about their own mental health or someone else’s. We also know how important regular attendance at school is for the development and wellbeing of children and young people. Schools should speak with pupils and families to understand what support bereaved children will need in order to be integrated back into school following a bereavement absence so that they can re-engage with their education and social development.

In conclusion, I again thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh West for continuing to draw attention to what is an important subject: the needs of bereaved children. As we have heard, the impact of losing a parent or close family member is profound. The Government remain committed to supporting families in difficult times in a number of ways, including those I have set out today. Grief and loss are deeply personal, and where additional support is needed, I pay tribute to the organisations and individuals who provide that support to bereaved children and their families.