Pupil Mental Health, Well-being and Development - Motion to Take Note

– in the House of Lords at 3:18 pm on 22 February 2024.

Alert me about debates like this

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle:

Moved by Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle

That this House takes note of the role of schools in caring for the mental health and well-being of pupils, and assisting in their development as community and family members.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, I begin by thanking the Library for the excellent briefing setting out the problem. A standout statistic in that briefing about the truly terrible state of the mental health of school pupils was that in November 2023 NHS Digital estimated that 20% of eight to 16 year-olds had a probable mental health disorder.

I thank the significant number of NGOs and campaign groups that sent briefings for the debate. I pick out particularly Square Peg, an organisation established by and for those with lived experience of school attendance difficulties. It works in partnership with Not Fine in School. Its existence since 2018 demonstrates how the issue we are discussing pre-dates the Covid pandemic, while acknowledging that it has undoubtedly magnified issues for pupils, parents and schools. Absence rates were rising by 15% to 20% per annum pre pandemic, while exclusion and suspension rates, off-rolling and de-registrations were also increasing.

I thank very much the noble Lords who signed up for this last item of business on a Thursday. This is an acknowledgement of the concern about this issue and the desire to examine not just treatment but causes. I look forward to all noble Lords’ contributions.

The origins of this debate lie in alarm following the report, in November 2023, by the Children’s Commissioner for England. The report found that pupil absence had become endemic at key stage 4, with over one-third of pupils either persistently or severely absent for at least one year. But from both the largest parties in our politics, discussion and debate about those figures has, I am afraid, focused on what is wrong with pupils or parents. The Government have launched a national communications campaign called Moments Matter, Attendance Counts, which targets parents and carers, trying to get through to them the importance of attendance for attainment, well-being and development.

That seems to ignore the fact that a survey by the youth mental health charity stem4 found that 28% of 12 to 18 year-olds had not attended school over the last year due to anxiety about the experience of attendance. Experts comment that many of them are unable to cope with the school experience, and the “prosecuting parents” report reflects that threatening legal action against parents, as often happens, is both pointless and damaging. But, all too often, that continues to be the response. What does it do to a parent-child relationship if the parent or carer is being pressured by the Government to force the child to go to school, even when school is making the child ill? The top Labour response was that it would legislate for a compulsory national register of home-schooled children, who are not, of course, the source of the attendance issue.

Rather than focusing on pupils or parents, the Green Party and I want to focus on what is happening in our schools. What are they doing to push away pupils—particularly, but far from only, those from disadvantaged backgrounds and with special educational needs, disabilities and chronic illnesses, including long Covid—and discourage their attendance? Why are they failing to be attracted to school?

There is a whole other issue about the rising levels of poverty and child poverty, which were addressed in the powerful earlier debate today. That is obviously a major contributor. Our society is dysfunctional and is failing many, particularly the young. But I will keep the focus today within schools. There is also a big issue of underfunding, but I will not focus on that today because it descends so easily into a pointless duel of statistics.

I stress that I am not blaming hard-working heads, teachers and other staff, who operate within a system forced on them, one that has been ideologically driven, over the course of Governments of different hues, to focus on discipline, rigid frameworks, teaching to the test, regimented and tightly controlled behaviour, and so-called preparation for work. Of course, I have to mention dealing with the impacts of austerity, which saw the most deprived one-fifth of secondary schools’ spending per pupil fall by 12% in real terms between 2010 and 2021. As a former school governor, I saw the pressure that heads and teachers were under to conform, to test and to push square pegs into round holes.

The spread of multi-academy trust schools, independent of local democratic control—with schools not infrequently forced, rather than choosing, to join—has been associated with models of rigid discipline and heavy penalties for the slightest infraction: not having a pen, speaking in a corridor or having the wrong hairdo. A former teacher described it as “institutional bullying”. These schools are concentrated in more economically deprived, often so-called levelling-up, areas. A mother shared with me on social media her child’s response to the suggestion that school was preparing them for society. The child said, “But the only place in society that is like school is a prison”. Out of the mouths of babes come some terribly clear truths.

One of the things that I want to reflect on goes back in history, and how little schools have changed in the past century. If you set aside the technology of whiteboards and personal tablets then the structure, system and perceived purpose of schools is essentially unchanged. The subjects taught and favoured, the external exams and classes, with dozens of pupils of the same age all proceeding together, the idea that this is to prepare pupils for the workplace and the focus on discipline, uniform and conformity—all this would be entirely familiar to a Victorian student, and to what use is the technology put? In initiating discussions about this debate, I learned that in many schools an app records a pupil’s demerits—how many black marks they have earned that day—which are also conveyed electronically to parents, to show how much time pupils are supposed to spend in detention. What does it do to your mental health to know that when your phone vibrates, you have another black mark, another perceived failure, another punishment?

The Autistic Girls Network shared with me research from 2023, showing that 94% of school attendance cases were underpinned by significant emotional distress. Some 92% of those children were neurodivergent and 83% were autistic. However, as the network pointed out, 80% of autistic girls remain unrecognised at the age of 18, so the numbers will be even higher than that. There is no doubt that children with special educational needs and disabilities are being severely failed by the current system. That issue, I am pleased to say, is often raised in your Lordships’ House, and I am confident when I look at the speakers’ list that others in this debate will focus on it. I shall focus on the fact that many pupils, particularly those who start with advantages in family background, health and well-being, may survive the experience of school—they may not show up in the absence statistics or with mental health states sufficient to appear in the medical figures—but we should want and expect much more from schools than being something to survive and endure.

I focus on the rise in discipline, rules and controls over every aspect of pupils’ bodies within the school gates, but there is also the question of what has disappeared from schools, particularly over recent years. I discussed this debate with Rick Page, ex-head teacher of Wordsworth Primary School in Southampton, a large inner-city school of 630 children. Over a number of years, when he was head, he developed a five-strand creative child programme; a music department that sent an orchestra to play at the Royal Albert Hall with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; a sports coach team with an office on site and an extensive curriculum, plus after-school and holiday clubs; an environmental studies and forest schoolteacher, teaching in a nature zone; a dance teacher for tackling ballet and to lead the Rock Challenge; and an arts focus, which included a talented artists scheme with a neighbouring public school, the King Edward VI School. Mr Page told me that attendance, attitude and behaviour were all improved by fostering a real connection with children’s lives and the local community. Since he retired, continual real-terms budget cuts and the straitjacket of conformity imposed on schools by Ofsted have seen many significant parts of that lost. That is one school example, but the reality of many.

I want to introduce a final theme: the content of education offered in schools, which, as I said earlier, has changed little since Victorian times. This comment was inspired by hearing Nehaal Bajwa, the vice-president for liberation and equality at the National Union of Students, speaking last night and reflecting on how the system provides education throughout in how our economy, society and environment are broken, but fails to provide solutions on how to fix it. We really ought to think about how we provide pupils with the ability to deal with the many challenges that they face in our society—challenges that our generation has bequeathed to them. I would add that we have schools that are preparing pupils to be cogs in the existing economic system, a fate against which many pupils are rebelling. There is an idea that education is for exams and jobs, when it needs to be a complete preparation for life in a fast-changing world, living as citizens, neighbours and family and household members, and as consumers in and contributors to society in multiple ways.

How will we tackle the climate emergency and nature crisis, the poverty and inequality of the world and the geopolitical turmoil? The climate strikers showed us that school pupils are fully engaged with those things, but how are schools helping them to do that? What I heard from being out with and talking to those climate strikers was that they felt that schools were failing them. Indeed, a number said to me that they had teachers ask them to explain the climate emergency, because the teachers themselves did not feel that they had the framework to understand it.

What does the rigid behavioural indoctrination prepare pupils for? Perhaps behaving with the efficiency of a robot in an Amazon warehouse, or following the script in a call centre. WB Yeats said that education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. Yet, all too often, what we have in the current system is filling school pupils with anxiety and fear; with test answers and rigid routines, rather than a love of learning and the capacity to discover and innovate; with the problems of the adult world, but not the sense that they can take control and join with others to solve them.

I like to provide solutions, so I will finish with a final stream of thought that may be the most radical part of this speech. How do we fix all this? One part of my answer is that it starts with democracy. We need to restore democratic control over schools and remove the dead centralising hand of Westminster; more than that, we need to make schools more democratic. Psychologists tell us that to be empowered and be in control of your own life and your own body is crucial to well-being. It is a central part of good mental health. That is as true for children as it is for adults.

So, what do we need? We are talking about health and well-being, helping pupils to step out into a difficult world with so many challenges, equipped to live good, healthy, productive lives. We need schools that are more democratic and more compassionate, caring and forgiving. If a child forgot a pen or did not get exactly the right uniform on that morning, how much should that child pay for that? What is the cost of penalising that child heavily? They need to be more accepting of difference, more embedded in and reflective of their communities, not reflective of the will of Westminster. They need to be far richer in art, culture, physical activity and play. That is the sort of schools that we need to care for the mental health and well-being of our future generations, to send them out into the world for a healthy, fulfilling and productive life.

Photo of Lord Sterling of Plaistow Lord Sterling of Plaistow Conservative 3:33, 22 February 2024

My Lords, all of us today appreciate that the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, managed to achieve this debate, which we all welcome hugely; I thank her. I do not consider anything that we talk about today to be party politics; it is much more important than that. My friend, the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, has spent years, indeed decades, debating how we can hasten the methods for helping this group of people. I must also say that I have been helped for this debate by Professor Vivian Hill of University College London, who is the past chair of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Educational and Child Psychology. We worked together for many years because my grandson is autistic, although that is not the only reason; it was much wider than just my grandson.

While schools can, and do, play a significant role in supporting the mental health and well-being of all their pupils, head teachers have a significant role in delivering the culture and ethos of their schools. They face a significant increase in the number of pupils requiring support, and they can face significant challenges when working with pupils with more severe and complex needs, in particular those with special educational needs, including autism and dyslexia. To support these pupils and their families, they would require access to more specialist professional support services, such as educational psychologists and child and adolescent mental health services, although this support is increasingly rare.

I will elaborate on the nature of the challenge. There is a great deal of evidence on increasing mental health needs in children and young people. NHS data from 2021 suggests that the rates of probable mental disorders have increased since 2017, reporting an increase from 11.6% in 2017 to 17.4% in 2021, which reflects a change from one in nine to one in six children aged six to 16, and the data indicates a similar increase in 17 to 19 year-olds. The Children’s Society Good Childhood Report 2022 indicates that, in the past three years, the likelihood of young people having a mental health problem has increased by some 50%, suggesting that five children in a classroom of 30 are now likely to have mental health problems. Access to overstretched specialist services such as child and adolescent mental health teams is extremely problematical, with 34% of those pupils referred to NHS services not accepted into treatment or placed on waiting lists of one to three years. We know that in the region of 50% of mental health problems start by age 14, and early proactive and preventive support is critical and may significantly reduce longer-term needs for the individual and longer-term costs for society; it is a problem that cannot be ignored.

The limited access to specialist support or professional guidance for schools and families leaves them struggling to manage complex mental health needs that require the knowledge and skills of specialist support services, and by this, I mean educational psychologists and CAMHS. There are huge variations in access to this type of support in different parts of the country and some areas have little or no access to these services. The money the DfE is investing in the new training contract for educational psychologists is very welcome. However, the numbers who are to be trained are critically short of meeting the current and future demands.

The recent Department for Education report on the EP workforce in 2023 revealed: 88% of local authorities reporting difficulties in recruiting educational psychologists; one-third of local authorities reporting difficulties with the retention of educational psychologists; and 96% of the local authorities reporting recruitment and/or retention issues stated that these difficulties have critically affected young people reaching their full potential. This month, the recent comments from the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman have noted with consternation that the foreseeable educational psychology workforce capacity issues have been decades in the making and the impact that has had on young people’s timely access to education, health and care needs assessments, as well as early intervention and preventive work, puts many of these children and young people, their schools and families at risk of avoidable poor outcomes.

In summary, if schools are to care adequately for the mental health and well-being of all their pupils, in particular those with SEN, they will require access to specialist support from educational psychologists and better access to CAMHS. Access to these services will help schools respond to and meet these needs and help prevent pupils’ needs escalating, at great detriment to the child and their family and at huge cost to society. My noble friend the Minister has over many years devoted a great deal of her time to addressing and hastening change. I know that she cares most deeply for these very special people, many of whom contribute so much to the arts, sciences and original thinking.

Photo of Baroness Morris of Yardley Baroness Morris of Yardley Chair, Public Services Committee, Chair, Public Services Committee 3:40, 22 February 2024

My Lords, I too welcome the opportunity to have a debate on this important area. We are at the start of a very long journey in trying to find the appropriate answers.

I am not as pessimistic as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, about the state of schools. I often find them happy places. Not all is well and things could be better, but there are not 24,000 miserable institutions throughout the country. For many of our children, school is the only place where their well-being is protected; they are emotionally stronger, more stable and happier because they go to school every day. However, I absolutely accept that that is not true for everyone, and every child matters. We must do as much as we can to support those children who are falling off the edge.

I wondered why I never discussed issues such as this during my 18 years of teaching. There are probably two reasons why it was not on our agenda way back then. First, we are now more aware that children can have mental health problems and medical science means that we have done more to diagnose them. Secondly, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, that the pressure has increased, and we need to look at that. The question is whether the schools are the cause of that deterioration of well-being and whether they are equipped to support children when the pressures come from outside. How much is it the schools’ fault and how much can they do to help when pressure comes from elsewhere?

I believe that children should be encouraged to do well in examinations. I am glad that I got mine. They gave me my life chances and every statistic shows that children who do not do so have worse opportunities. I have never apologised for any teacher or politician whose policies intend to narrow that divide between children who succeed in exams at school and those who do not. However, it is legitimate to ask what the cost of that has been in the way that we structure our schools. That is what I want to concentrate on. There has been a cost and we can do something about it, but we need to be honest and open and think very carefully.

The problem is not the higher expectations for all children to do well in their exams but the levers we use to try to bring that about. We have undoubtedly made these exams so high-pressured and high-risk that they create an environment in schools, from the head to the teachers to the parents and then trickling down to the children, whereby if you do not succeed, you are in trouble and a failure. That is a problem.

I always remember a young child who had not done as well in their exams as they thought they would saying to me, “Estelle, does that mean that I’m not any good and won’t be able to get a job?” It was very difficult in that moment to say, “Of course you can, everyone fails and you learn from it”, because the whole pressure prior to that had been to say, “If you don’t work hard, you won’t get a job, and success is doing A, B or C”. Those messages we give children are really important. You need your exams and should do as well as you can, but it is not the end of the world and you are not a worse person if you do not do as well as you might.

The second issue on which I agree very much with the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, is that there is no doubt that two things have happened. Things that can aid well-being—art, creativity, sport, time to think and space to talk, time to build good relationships—have been squeezed out of schools. Even where they have not, teachers do not think they are valued. Both those things are a huge problem. There are teachers who are trying to do those things; I see so much wonderful creativity in the arts in schools. You scratch your head and think, “I thought all of that was gone”. It is not valued, and because people think that government and others do not value it, that becomes a problem. There is more to be done, but I would not want to go back to the glory days when the division between the successes and failures was very much based on sex discrimination and social class discrimination.

Schools themselves can support children who may have mental health issues arising from pressures outside school, such as social media, drugs, fragmented communities, or families who do not have the skills to help them. Schools are absolutely key in this. They are the places where most children go and where trust is greatest—probably after child medical services.

We also need to address whether schools have the workforce to deliver on that task. There is so much more that could be done. If you look at the staffing of any school, you will probably find that almost all—but not all—the staff are employed to bring about academic progress and success. We need a better balance and skillset within schools. I would like to visit schools and find that, in addition to teachers whose job it is to get children through exams, there are also people with the time to talk about spiritual things, for example, to work magic, to take the kids out. We need people with skills and qualifications in mental health—not necessarily highly qualified psychologists, but people whose job it is to do early intervention and give early support for young children.

That is where the problem lies. Years and years ago, schools were part of their communities. All families, especially in village communities, sent their children to their local school, which often neighboured the church. It was a tight community where everyone knew what was going on. Whatever you think about it, parental choice and a move to doing better means that this community built around a school has broken down. However, it does not mean that we cannot use the school as a base and a community for the people it serves. It just means that we need to do it in a very different way.

I finish by acknowledging the work the Government have done on mental health support teams. They have not done anywhere near enough on the curriculum—PSHE and citizenship, for example—but that is for another day. I like the mental health support teams, and I declare an interest, in that I am involved with the Birmingham Education Partnership, which is in charge of managing and promoting some of these. However, I worry that they might be seen as a substitute for people who have slogged for years to gain well-earned qualifications. Progress really is too slow. We are covering only 35% of pupils, six years after the start of the initiative. It needs to be done better and faster. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us when this might be rolled out nationally.

Photo of Earl Russell Earl Russell Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 3:48, 22 February 2024

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for bringing this important debate before the House, and those who are speaking today.

Improving the mental health and well-being of our children in school is one of the most important issues, and all of us must work on it together. In the early years, a good experience of education and the ability to learn, grow and develop in a safe and secure environment are essential to success in future life. Our children need to be resilient. Good mental health is a prerequisite to learning, as it is to good attendance at school. An ill child is no more capable of learning than a cheese grater is of being a glass of water. Our schools must be warm, welcoming, adaptable and inclusive spaces. Schools are ideal settings for providing our children with mental health support.

In a previous debate, the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, put it very well:

“Thinking about a child’s school environment, we need to develop a culture of nurture as the foundation for learning”.—[Official Report, 23/11/23; col. 837.]

We need proper funding and resources and a whole-school approach. First and foremost, we must deal with the immediate crisis.

I held my own debate in November on the current state of mental health support for children and young people in England. I declared my personal interest as a parent of a child who has gone through long periods of poor mental health, saying that it was one of the most challenging periods of my life and that no parent ever wants to see their child unable to keep themselves safe. My knowledge and experience in these matters is as a parent.

The scale of the mental health problem is huge; it disproportionately affects those in poverty and is made worse by the lack of resources available to resolve it. The most recent key findings from the NHS digital survey show that one in five of our young people aged eight to 25 had a probable mental health disorder. Rates remain at elevated levels following the pandemic, and among 17 to 25 year-olds, rates were twice as high for young women as they were for young men. We are treating double the number than before the pandemic of children and young people with eating disorders who need urgent care. We have huge waits for services, with treatment for even immediate and urgent cases often, in effect, being denied. We face a children’s and young person’s mental health emergency, and we must all work together to end the wait. The House spoke clearly with one urgent voice on the issues, and I think it will do so again today.

I have called on the Government to accelerate the rollout of mental health support hubs to all schools and colleges nationwide. That is the quickest and most effective form of help. I asked the Government to commit to bringing forward their target of 50% access by 2024-25 and making it 100%. Munira Wilson in the other place has introduced a Private Member’s Bill on this issue, and I am delighted that my party has put forward proposals for dedicated mental health professionals in all state-funded schools and to pay for that through a trebling of the digital services tax. Place2Be has calculated that every £1 invested in primary schools-based mental health provision will generate £8 in economic and social benefits.

The response from the Minister at the time of my last debate was positive; however, since then, nothing has happened. I kindly ask her why there has been no movement from the Government on these issues? The urgency and need is clear and the cost is not great, so are there practical problems with accelerating the policy? Is it about not being able to find and train staff in time, or are there other practical matters?

I will briefly say a few words about long-term persistent absence. When my child was ill, she was off school for prolonged periods and had a very poor attendance record during others. I know what it is like, and just how challenging it can be, when your child is not well enough keep themselves safe, let alone attend school. I know the struggle of trying to get them out of bed every morning. I also understand how we got in this position: Covid caused an explosion in mental health issues, and we need to understand better why that was. It shows that our children are lacking the resilience they so desperately need.

As a result of the increase in poor mental health and the lack of available treatment, absence rates invariably rose, and the Government and schools, rightly, wanted to bring those back down. However, my personal perception is that they went too far. Fining parents should be an absolute last resort. The parent of any child who is waiting for treatment for mental health issues or is unable to get a diagnosis for autism or other special needs should not face those fines. There needs to be far more co-operation between schools and parents in trying to get children who are suffering back to school. The Children’s Commissioner has also pointed out this problem, calling it

“the issue of our time”.

Like me, she is calling for the Government to accelerate the rollout of mental health hubs.

Although the causes of persistent absence from school are complex, one key factor is the lack of mental health support and I would like to ask the Minister about the connection with the numbers of children who have been waiting over a month for CAMHS. Do the Government keep statistics, cross-referencing them for children who are waiting for treatment against children who are also long-term persistently absent from school? It is important that the Government cross-reference those two groups so they can better understand whether a denial of treatment for mental ill-health is one of the key drivers of long-term persistent absence from school.

Finally, I call on the Government again to please take more urgent action on these matters. I recognise the progress made and the actions taken, but more needs to be done urgently to protect our children and young people.

Photo of Baroness Bull Baroness Bull Deputy Chairman of Committees 3:55, 22 February 2024

My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak in this debate and I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for focusing her seemingly inexhaustible energies on this important topic. It is a complex topic that invites multiple approaches. I intend to focus narrowly on one area, and, given that intended focus, I must start by declaring my interests as noted in the register. Of particular relevance to this debate is my role as chair of an expert advisory panel convened by government to offer non-binding advice to the DCMS and DfE on the development of their plan for cultural education.

My own education was far from usual in that I entered professional training at the age of 11 as a student at the Royal Ballet School. I will always count myself fortunate to have been educated in a place where there was never any sense that art was an extra, a “nice to have”, or peripheral to the main purpose. Art and arts-based approaches were integrated throughout a broad-based education that would equip us with a set of skills as important in life as they are in dance: curiosity, courage, perseverance, confidence, teamwork, personal responsibility and a creative hinterland on which to draw. Over the years, my increasing awareness of just how effectively that arts-enriched education prepared me for life beyond the stage has inspired an ongoing quest to better understand the role of the arts, culture and creativity in personal and social development, educational attainment, and health and well-being.

It is a field of research that has blossomed over recent decades. In 2016, the AHRC published a landmark report, Understanding the Value of Arts & Culture, which analysed, among other things, how arts engagement contributes to community cohesion, civic engagement and educational attainment. Three years later, the World Health Organization published the largest report to date on the underlying evidence base for the contribution of arts and culture to health and well-being. Of particular relevance to this debate is that the report found strong evidence of a positive correlation between arts engagement and the social determinants of health, child development and healthy behaviours.

Alongside evidence that childhood engagement in arts activities can predict academic performance across the school years, the report’s authors also found that it promotes pro-social classroom and playground behaviour, enhances emotional competence and reduces bullying. The behavioural benefits are shown to extend to groups with diverse needs. Children from less advantaged backgrounds, those with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties and those with physical or learning disabilities experienced reductions in anxiety, depression or aggression, with associated improvements in self-esteem, confidence, communication and personal empowerment. The authors also report a sizeable literature on the arts’ role in building social and community capital, fostering co-operation across different cultures, reducing prejudice, enhancing social consciousness and increasing civic behaviours such as voting and volunteering.

Dr Daisy Fancourt, one of the authors of the report, has worked forensically over many years to investigate the ways in which these outcomes occur: how the component elements of arts activities trigger psychological, physiological, social and behavioural responses that are themselves causally linked with positive health and well-being outcomes. In addressing the question that the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, has introduced today, it is worth considering each of these in turn.

Fancourt’s work points to how the aesthetic and emotional components of art provide opportunities for understanding and exploring emotions. They allow opportunities for emotional regulation and stress reduction, and all these are key to how we manage mental health. The cognitive stimulation in art supports learning and skills development, which is beneficial in itself but is also interrelated with mental illnesses such as depression. Group interactions through arts activities improve social capital and reduce prejudice and discrimination between different groups. The physicality of arts activities reduces sedentary behaviours, improving fitness, flexibility and bone health and linking to reductions in depression. This is what the research tells us.

Schools taking part in the Artsmark programme show us what this looks like in action. Artsmark offers schools a framework and support to embed creativity across the curriculum, addressing school improvement priorities, and 89% of Artsmark schools report improvements in pupils’ well-being and resilience. They point to positive impacts on mental health, enhanced intercultural understanding and stronger connections forged between staff, pupils, families and local communities. Schools also report improvements in punctuality, student engagement and attendance, underlining the important point noted earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, about creating environments that encourage children and their parents to engage with school.

Partnership working is key to success and, in the best-case scenarios, a network of commissioners, providers and agencies across education, culture, voluntary and faith sectors, as well as local authorities, work together to provide children with rich, culturally diverse and locally connected arts opportunities. I urge the Minister to follow the progress of Culture Start, a three-year city-based cross-sector partnership launching this year in Sunderland, which will span social housing and the voluntary, cultural and youth sectors, as well as education, to provide young people with cultural experiences that help to mitigate some of the impacts of growing up in poverty.

Research and lived experience demonstrate how arts activities and experiences can support schools in caring for the mental health and well-being of children and in fostering family and community connections. The evidence is clear, the outcomes evident. There are, of course, other routes for children to access arts activities, at home and in the community, but if we want all children to enjoy the developmental, educational and social benefits associated with arts engagement, school—a universal experience—is surely the best route to ensuring universal access.

I know that, in responding, the Minister will reiterate her commitment to ensuring that all children have access to these opportunities through education. I will finish by welcoming that commitment in advance.

Photo of Lord Wei Lord Wei Conservative 4:02, 22 February 2024

My Lords, I extend my gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for initiating this vital debate, and declare my interests as a parent of home-educated and state-educated children and as a board member of an organisation committed to providing private education.

We are at a critical juncture, where the mental health challenges facing our youth have intensified—notably since the pandemic, as others have pointed out. Just this month, the Royal College of Psychiatrists said that there had been a 53% increase in the number of children in mental health crisis over the last four years. This situation is exacerbated by a schooling environment in which most GCSEs are now tested in exams only. This, coupled with limited resources, has severely hampered schools’ ability to support effectively those with neurodiversity and SEND, as well as other pupils struggling generally with mental health challenges.

It is heartening to see the Government’s introduction of mental health support teams and the provision of funding for training leads. This is a commendable step towards embedding mental health support within our educational framework. However, the reach of these initiatives needs expansion, given that eventually it will still only be available to half of all schools, and all schools are still limited in the degree that they can help children with particularly acute needs. It is essential that this support becomes a staple across all schools, ensuring that no child is left without the necessary mental health resources that they need at whatever intensity of need they have. I of course pay tribute to the many schools and teachers who do such a great job in spite of all this, helping where they can.

I will now focus my remarks on the school pathways for parents and children dealing with mental health episodes which, from those I have spoken to and interacted with, are too often confusing, complex and traumatic. This comes on top of the high levels of stress families feel because of the issues they have to deal with and, sometimes, the bullying that accompanies them. The pathways need clarification and simplification; they need to become more collaborative rather than confrontational, offering support rather than exacerbating stress and anxiety.

Too often, parents find that the imperative schools have to keep children in school and perform in and for exams, and to manage limited resources and attention to get the bulk of their pupils moving forwards, conflicts with the individualised and tailored attention and support needed by pupils facing mental health challenges. In a number of cases, parents decide to remove their children from a school environment which is not sufficiently supportive, which the child refuses to go to or in which they face bullying.

At this point, the parents face a number of hurdles: attempts can often be made to keep the child in school attendance, even if it might not be in the child’s best interests or aid their well-being, so that the school, trust and local authority can maintain their targets, sometimes with the threat of prosecution or fines. The family can often feel mistreated, like criminals.

I find that, in such scenarios, many families currently see home education as their only escape from such a system that does not adequately cater to their needs. It seems to them the only legal way to move forwards without harassment, short of moving house to another locality. This choice, often made in desperation, should prompt us to reflect on how we can make even more of our schools more neuro-inclusive and supportive environments, rather than ones that have to enforce rules that may not apply or be particularly helpful in such circumstances.

I am also saddened that, rather than dealing with the causes of such absences and the growth of home education as a result of this crisis, the Government and other stakeholders are considering implementing registers for out-of-school children. This would add further stress to families who have chosen to go down that route. It would be wiser to sort out the lack of support and empathy when families have to endure mental health and special needs challenges in schools, signpost multiple paths including, but not just, home education to provide temporary respite and formulate a plan, which may or may not involve the former school, and provide advice, support and training if home education is the chosen path, rather than to create a situation where those who have taken their children out of school are automatically assumed to be criminal or are suspected of neglect or any number of crimes. For many, their only desire is ultimately to see their child well, succeed and be restored.

In closing, I will pose a number of critical questions to the Minister. First, will there be an investigation into the reliance on home education as the only legitimate escape route for parents seeking to protect their children from a system that can sometimes feel to them adversarial, and work done to clarify the pathways out of an unsustainable school environment, so that they are more supportive and do not suspect the parents or child as a first resort?

Secondly, in light of the recent trends in school attendance and the unique challenges post Covid—they look like a result of Covid at the moment, given that attendance is now rising again—is there a plan for an emergency support package specifically targeted at the student cohorts most affected from 2020 onwards?

Thirdly, what support is planned for these children and families with mental health challenges and additional needs who are out of formal school contexts, given that they sometimes need help, either when they are being home-educated or are in an in-between situation, at home or in another non-school context? Will funding be released for families to access trained support from either local authorities or trusted charities without being pursued for absences in those situations?

Our commitment to the mental health and well-being of our pupils is a testament to our dedication to their future and the future of our society. Let us ensure that our actions reflect this commitment by fostering an environment where every child facing mental health challenges feels supported, understood and valued, whether formally in school or not.

Photo of Lord Touhig Lord Touhig Labour 4:08, 22 February 2024

My Lords, I join colleagues in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for securing this debate. It is important and helpful to discuss these matters.

Earlier this month, many organisations sought to raise the profile of children’s mental health during Children’s Mental Health Week. The charity Place2Be took the theme “My Voice Matters” and used the opportunity to urge the Government to give children and young people the support, tools and confidence that they need—confidence to be proud of themselves but, more, confidence to believe in themselves. I have always thought that believing in oneself is the beginning of self-confidence. I have known cases where a lack of confidence among young schoolchildren in particular has been put down to shyness. It is thought of simply as something that will pass in time, but it often hides other problems. In quite a few cases, the underlying problem, left unrecognised, can lead to many crises in later life.

This is why mental health support should start early on in a child’s life, at school. For so many children, school is the first time in their lives that they have been apart from the home and family environment, and the first time that they have spent a whole day with other children and adults who they do not know. A quarter of a million children in the UK are believed to have mental health problems. We face a major challenge in ensuring that they receive the support needed to enjoy the quality of life that those of us in this Chamber would take for granted.

Many are denied help by a National Health Service that is struggling to manage surging caseloads against a backdrop of a crisis in child mental health. Some health trusts in our country are failing to offer treatment to up to 60% of those referred by GPs. Health service figures released last November show that one in five children and young people in England have a probable mental health condition. Surely the time to begin supporting these young people is when they begin at school.

Let me take one area of concern: speech and language. I have some experience with families with children whose lack of speech is a cause for concern. The charity Speech and Language UK tells me that a child with speech and language problems is twice as likely as their peers to have mental health problems. Why is this? Well, its research shows that there may be anxiety or frustration caused by not understanding what people are saying or not being understood themselves. That can sometimes be the case with children with autism—as I know as a vice-president of the National Autistic Society, together with my noble friend Lady Browning. They may struggle socially at nursery and consequently have low self-esteem. They may have difficulty with thinking things through and working out what might happen and do not understand the consequences and implications of their actions. They might feel socially isolated because of their poor communication skills. Their difficulties with language and communication might not have been recognised, so they may not be getting the help and support that they need.

The best thing we can do to help is to make sure that these problems are recognised early and that the proper help is in place. That means that teachers and early years practitioners should receive training on how to help a child develop their talking and understanding of words—this is pretty basic. This will also help identify a child who is struggling. They should also know where to refer them for further support and diagnosis. It is no good discovering something and not knowing how to get it treated and supported. Schools need to be able to measure and track children’s talking and understanding of words in the same way that we do with literacy and numeracy. We need a free tool that can be used at the start of key stages 1 and 2 by class teachers so that they can spot a child who is struggling. Currently, schools must pay to do this.

Teachers need to know what is available to help children with speech and language challenges. We need guidance about what evidence-based tools and interventions work best and which might be most appropriate in each school. There also needs to be better recognition by child and adolescent mental health services of the high proportion of children with mental health problems who have speech and language challenges. Staff need to be trained on how to help children struggling with their mental health and find out what works best for them.

My noble friend Lady Morris of Yardley and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, spoke about mental health support teams. The Children’s Commissioner for England, Dame Rachel de Souza, has called for every school to have a mental health team in place by 2025. Perhaps in responding, the Minister might be able to tell us whether the Government are working towards that and agree with it.

I appreciate that I have covered a fair number of points here, and I will be more than content if the Minister, having had time to reflect, would like to write to me. I end by asking her whether she might also consider meeting Speech and Language UK, the charity that I have spoken about. Together, they might help us find some of the solutions to the problems that we are facing.

Photo of The Bishop of Chichester The Bishop of Chichester Bishop 4:14, 22 February 2024

My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, for sponsoring this debate on a matter of great importance for the future life of our nation, and for the challenging sensitivity to the issues that she laid out for us in her introduction.

Church of England schools now educate just over 1 million children—around 20% of the country’s education provision. The Church’s current Vision for Education, published in 2016, is for an education system that promotes

“life in all its fullness”, a phrase used by Jesus Christ in St John’s Gospel, and invites a wholistic approach to education, considering the material, cultural, social and spiritual dimensions of human existence and the wisdom with which we use the gifts God has given us.

In the diocese of Chichester, where I serve, our schools serve the many coastal towns of Sussex, with their distinctive blend of tourism and deep deprivation, as well as extensive rural areas, where small village schools play a vital role in the way that the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, identified. We in Chichester will not be alone in forging partnerships in our Church schools with NHS mental health support teams. I pay tribute to their importance. It has enabled us to develop home-school-church networks, building vital work where the life of school and the life of home interact. It also makes it possible to find better ways to support children who suffer with their mental health.

This NHS partnership has also opened up another partnership through a diocesan multi-academy trust that is working with the University of Sussex to assess the impact of the Covid pandemic. Among the things emerging from that are questions about the impact that working from home might be having on children’s attendance at school. It also looks at the impact of social media, which expanded for many children during lockdown, and asks questions about the extent to which cell phone use, for example, now might need to be more carefully restricted in schools.

I will also refer to the independent education sector, which is well represented in Sussex. It faces many of the same challenges among the pupil body but often with greater resources for meeting them. I wish to draw attention to just one aspect of this, since it indicates, as has been stated, a loss from the maintained sector: the need for arts provision, especially music, as a non-word-based medium that makes articulation of their deepest feelings much easier for children who might struggle with words. This can be especially true for pupils who experience the trauma of violence and abuse, as it can be for neurodiverse pupils, those with learning difficulties, or those for whom English is not their first language. The noble Baroness, Lady Bull, outlined these important points in greater detail in her comments.

This is something that Brighton College has developed remarkably well. It has used it as a way to welcome Ukrainian refugees into its life and to forge a strong partnership with schools in the East End of London. The model speaks to us about something that has been done and shown to be of enormous value, which surely also belongs to the right of all children as part of their school experience, especially those children with special needs.

Reference to the importance of wider influences that contribute to the educational life of young people is also evident in a recent study undertaken by the University of Leeds, which indicates that when fathers engage in

“multiple types of structured activities several times a week”, it

“helps to enrich a child’s cognitive and language development”.

This raises important questions about the role of fathers in parenting, and about their absence—physically, emotionally, economically—and the subconscious impact it might have on their children. From a government perspective, might this suggest that it would be worth giving attention to the gender balance of the teaching profession and encouraging an increase in male teachers, especially in the primary school sector?

These observations indicate the intensity of the context in which education is delivered by a remarkably dedicated profession of teachers and classroom assistants, who face complex human needs that have to be addressed before other aspects of learning can take place. Sustaining that profession, with adequate resources through the recruitment of people of high calibre, remuneration that is commensurate with the skills we expect of them, and public recognition of their important work, is surely one of the best contributions the Government can make to the mental, intellectual and spiritual well-being of our children and young people in their schools.

Photo of Lord Hampton Lord Hampton Crossbench 4:19, 22 February 2024

My Lords, I join the chorus of thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, for tabling this debate; I pay tribute to her boundless energy. I would love to have the opportunity to show her around the school where I teach as well, because we have a very high standard of discipline and I did not recognise the institutional bullying that seems to go on. On that point, I must as ever declare my interest as a secondary school teacher in a state school in London. It is always an honour to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester, with his very thoughtful ideas.

There is no point in talking about the role of schools if children are not in schools. Some 1.8 million children are persistently absent, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, said. For a lot, that is the only place where their well-being is protected, and it is so important that we get them in there.

The Royal College of GPs advises that

“mild or moderate anxiety, whilst sometimes difficult emotions, can be a normal part of growing up for many children and young people”.

We need to get them back. Mild anxiety becomes anxiety. Nobody wants to go to school on a Monday morning. That leads to bigger things. I would be very interested to hear what the Government are doing, rather than being fairly punitive with parents and schools, about engaging students and getting them back in.

Anybody is better off in a school. School is where you can triage students; they can be sent towards CAMHS or MHSTs, whether or not they have been previously diagnosed. These all need to be funded properly. I have talked before about the playground; teachers are very good at spotting things, whether that is bullying or changes in behaviour. Again, they can triage and get the professionals in.

Children are social animals. They need school, which is where they build up all these techniques to get them through life. We need them back. SEN needs to be dealt with; again, that is dealt with at school. In a bedroom, it is very difficult to spot a symptom.

There are also external influences we need to look at. The very good charity Tom’s Trust provides mental health, well-being and psychological support for 536 children with brain tumours and their families—about 1,600 people. Children at school might have a very sick sibling; it might be invisible. I declare an interest in that the founder of Tom’s Trust, Debs Mitchell, is a great friend of mine.

We underestimate all this, but schools can obviously do more as well. The curriculum needs to change; how many times have I stood up and said this in my short career here? The House of Lords Education for 11-16 Year Olds Committee published its final report in December 2023, with many excellent recommendations, pretty much all of which the Government have just rejected. The noble Lord, Lord Johnson, the chairman of the committee, said in yesterday’s Times that:

“This government’s attempt to recreate a 1950s curriculum is of little help to many disadvantaged schoolchildren”.

As many people here have said, we need more fun in schools. We need schools to be places where children want to go and teachers want to teach. We blame the Victorians for a lot of things—this beautiful building is not one of them—but we have this Victorian idea that education should be a grind; that medicine should taste horrible; that food is just to sustain you. School should be fun.

I will talk about something that I know the Minister will approve of—sport. Nobody has talked about sport. We need two hours-plus of team games for every student every week. There is nothing like getting muddy, bloody and possibly violent to make you feel better.

I adore swimming. Obviously, it is a difficult one. I defy anybody to get into a pond, swim in cold water and remember the problem they went in with in the first place. We have all talked about singing. What could be better than a load of students in a room singing together? The wonderful charity Young Enterprise has a series of lessons aimed specifically at mental health and money management called “Money on my Mind”, which should be on the curriculum.

The school where I teach has reduced the number of GCSEs so that students can take subjects such as art without having to take an exam at the end or do coursework. They can do it just for fun, which gives them more headspace. However, to do that we need teachers who are confident and rested and feel valued. If their mental health is good, they are confident and happy, and that goes through all their relationships. We all know what happens to relationships if you are tired and stressed.

We need a confidence reset for children. Dame Rachel de Souza was quoted. I quote from her foreword to The Big Answer:

“If adults are to learn one thing from this report, it should be as follows. This is not a ‘snowflake generation.’ It is a heroic generation”.

We need them to know that.

Photo of Baroness Tyler of Enfield Baroness Tyler of Enfield Liberal Democrat 4:26, 22 February 2024

My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, on securing this debate. We have had a number of debates on children’s mental health in recent times, and the role of school always features, but today’s debate challenges us to think about the wider role of schools in relation to children’s well-being and confronts the perennial question of the purpose of education. Is it simply about academic attainment and preparation for the world of work? Is it also about preparing young people more widely for adulthood, including how they fulfil their potential in all spheres of life, become full citizens in our society and build healthy relationships? Is it also about providing the skills to build their personal resilience and emotional well-being to help deal with the knocks that life inevitably brings?

The answer, of course, is a combination of those things, but not everyone will agree on the precise mix. It might be trite to say that growing up in the modern world feels more complicated, with a whole new range of pitfalls to navigate, but I think it is true. It is clear that young people face increasing pressures from the academic environment, the growing influence of social media and the online world, and the lasting impact of the pandemic. I was struck by some research conducted for the Mental Health Foundation which found that the advent of technology, while offering unprecedented connectivity, also introduces new stressors, as individuals battle with the constant pressure to meet online standards and portray an idealised version of their lives.

It is worth reminding ourselves that The Good Childhood Report 2023, which has already been referred to, focused on children and young people’s experiences of school. Frankly, it did not make for comfortable reading, with more children and young people unhappy with school than with the other nine aspects of life they were asked about. Primary and secondary schools have an important role to play and have great potential to be a protective factor for mental health, but sadly that is not how too many young people feel about school. In a recent survey by Young Minds of more than 14,000 young people, only 3% said educational settings were a positive influence on their mental health, while 59% said that school or college had affected them negatively in some way. What is going on?

As we have heard already today, many schools have become heavily focused on exam results, and pressure to do well in exams can be overwhelming for some young people. Fundamentally, I believe that a whole-school approach is needed which creates a school culture and environment that has well-being at the core, where mental health and well-being are promoted and protected and which includes all pupils, students, teachers and staff members. In my experience, this happens only when the leadership of the school is actively engaged in and championing this work. It means ensuring that every adult who interacts with a child has the knowledge, understanding and wherewithal to support the child. Of course, parents and carers play a key role in teaching children and young people how to understand and manage their feelings as they grow up, and I would like to see more support in this area.

We know that staff in school are often the first point of contact for a young person struggling with their mental health; hence, they need to be provided with knowledge and understanding around behaviour and mental health and how to identify when a child is struggling. An independent study from NatCen on adolescent mental health and educational attainment observed a strong association between mental health difficulties between the ages of 11 and 14 and later academic attainment at age 16. The study found that children experiencing poor mental health are three times less likely than their peers to pass five GSCEs. I am sure that most schools understand this link, but it seems crucial that mental health issues are not viewed as yet another problem issue that they are forced to deal with. It is about creating the very foundations for learning and academic success.

Furthermore, exclusion from school is strongly related to poor mental health in children and young people, so we should be concerned that the rates of exclusion from school have increased in the last five years. I was interested to read in a recent study that, on average, children who had experienced at least one fixed-period exclusion in the year before attending counselling lost significantly fewer school sessions to exclusion in the year when they had counselling. That was from Place2Be, a charity that operates in many schools, providing drop-in sessions, family work and one-to-one counselling for those with more complex issues. Its analysis of pupils receiving counselling indicates that consistently poor mental health over time was associated with higher levels of persistent absence, which we heard about earlier, whereas improving or consistently good mental health was often associated with lower levels of persistent absence. Its findings also suggest that strengthening children’s engagement with and enjoyment of school over time was associated with reduced persistent absence. The same can be said about bullying but I do not have time to go into that now.

Preventing mental health problems arising in the first place is key. When support is available in schools in a non-stigmatising format, young people benefit. Young people themselves have talked about the need for safe spaces at school and safe conversations. By intervening early, building resilience and nurturing a positive understanding of emotions and well-being, we can ensure that young people learn lifelong skills so that their problems do not grow with them. That can be done through whole-class work, lessons and the curriculum. Critically, it needs to start at primary school age, to which we do not give enough attention.

Finally, I turn to mental health support teams. We have heard quite a bit about them and I have always supported them but, alongside many others, I have argued that the rollout should have proceeded at a much faster pace. As we have heard, on the current plans there is funding to achieve only 50% coverage of schools by 2025, leaving over half of schools, particularly primary schools, uncovered, and pupils without the support they need. To be clear, MHSTs are a welcome and important part of the jigsaw of mental health support, but they go only so far.

I will have a lot more to say on the subject next Friday at the Second Reading of my Private Member’s Bill, particularly my concern about children urgently needing mental health support who meet neither the mental health support teams’ “mild to moderate” criteria nor the criteria of specialist CAMHS support, with its very high access thresholds and extremely long waiting lists. Noble Lords should watch this space.

Photo of The Earl of Effingham The Earl of Effingham Conservative 4:33, 22 February 2024

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, for tabling this important debate.

We have been presented with some alarming statistics. One in five eight to 16 year-olds has a probable mental disorder. There has been a 53% increase in the number of children in mental health crisis over the past four years. We understand that the Government want to establish mental health support teams, which will undoubtedly help, but I suggest that prevention is better than cure. It should be possible to prevent manifold mental health problems among our schoolchildren before they become major issues. The foundation of that well-being is based on the four pillars of the school education system, in this order of priority: food education, physical education, financial education and academic education.

I have intentionally left academic education as the last pillar because being academically capable does not necessarily mean that you will be happy and make a success of your life. However, being well educated on key life decisions involving food choice, physical health and financial matters will incrementally increase your chances of a fulfilling life.

I am sure that many noble Lords are familiar with the phrase “gut instinct”. The gut is our second brain. It uses the same chemicals and cells as our main brain. Food changes our mind and our mental health; there is a direct correlation between a healthy diet and cognitive learning. Food education should therefore be the cornerstone pillar of a decent school programme to promote good mental health.

The beauty of this is that we already have a strategy in place which works. Charities such as Chefs in Schools have a mission to transform school food and food education and are training kitchen teams to serve fine school lunches. The benefits to schools are wide-ranging. The charity states that

“research shows great school food makes obesity fall, while health, wellbeing and attainment increase”.

This is a tried and tested opportunity that is there for the taking by the schools; all they need to do is reach out. For the benefit of the register, I should say that I have no association with this charity, but my beliefs and its aims are aligned.

When it comes to physical education, Sport England’s latest survey estimated that only 47% of children and young people were meeting the Chief Medical Officer’s guidelines of taking part in sport and physical activity for an average of 60 minutes or more every day. Sport and physical activity can change children’s lives. It improves cognitive abilities, boosts concentration and improves classroom conduct and behaviour—not to mention physical and mental health, which in turn encourages their development as community and family members. Physical exercise should be the second pillar of their education.

Schools must involve parents and the community in this journey. They need to understand the benefits of physical exercise if they are to enforce home rules on limiting screen time and taking exercise outside, as well as doing more physical exercise at school. Teacher training is key. We have to help the teachers themselves learn how to best promote an active lifestyle, make physical education engaging and how to combine learning with physical activity.

Children can benefit from physical exercise even before their first class of the day. The central target in the Government’s second cycling and walking investment strategy is that half of urban journeys should be walked or cycled by 2030. Cycling to school is a fantastic way for children to exercise and contribute to those required 60 minutes per day. It can be a community event involving both parents and classmates.

The third pillar is financial education. In a recent survey, 47% of children from low-income families said that they worry about their family’s finances, which is adding to their stress levels and in turn presenting itself through challenging behaviours at home and at school. Financial insecurity leads to anxiety, stress and depression but financial education at an early age will help to mitigate these risks.

I believe the recently issued guidance on mobile phones in schools, which backs headteachers in prohibiting the use of mobile phones throughout the school day, can play a key part in caring for the mental health and well-being of schoolchildren. The school environment should be a place for the learning of the four pillars, as I have outlined, and for face-to-face social interaction—not mobile to mobile.

I therefore ask the Minister what the Government are doing to educate both children and schoolteachers on how to cook, how to eat well and how to make healthy food choices. What can the Government do to work with charities such as Chefs in Schools?

On physical education, what are the Government doing to involve parents and the community in journeys? What teacher training is taking place? Will the Government commit to revisiting the decision to cut funding for walking and cycling schemes as part of the cycling and walking investment strategy? With financial education, how will the Government make this a cornerstone of a school education?

Photo of Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Labour 4:39, 22 February 2024

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, for her stimulating and challenging speech introducing this interesting debate. I also thank the House Library and the several organisations that have provided most helpful briefings, all pointing, regrettably, to the increasing mental problems among children and young people. I will not repeat the catalogue of problems that many others have covered.

I was going to say that one issue that had not been covered—although the noble Earl, Lord Effingham, now has—relates to diet and its impact on children’s and young people’s mental well-being. I am sure the Minister is not surprised that I am raising this again. The significant issue, on which action still needs to be taken, is the quality of school meals. My concern, and that of many others, is that one of the factors that greatly influences the conduct of children is sugar and the high incidence of it now. In particular, in the view of many people, there is an overly high incidence of sugar in school meals, which is why some of us have been pressing, for quite some time, for the long-overdue review of the regulations relating to school meals to be undertaken. The last time I raised this, the Minister said she would take it back to her department, and I am sure she has done that. As she returns today from her department, I wonder whether she is bringing some good news for us: that we will get a review—the last one took place in 2014—under way in 2024.

If the Minister is not in a position to do that, I can tell her that the new special Select Committee that has been established in the House to look at diet and obesity met this morning for the fourth time, to hear Henry Dimbleby give evidence. He of course was the former UK government tsar at Defra, brought in by the Government to help them with their problems with diet, farming-related issues, food generally and obesity. He resigned, somewhat disgusted with the Government’s unwillingness to implement a number of the recommendations that he has been pressing. Some of those related to children, school meals and the growth of obesity among children.

It is not only child obesity that is worrying us now. As the noble Earl, Lord Russell, mentioned—the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, has spoken frequently on this—we now see an increasing number of children with mental health problems relating to eating disorders. There is considerable growth in that area, which is of big concern and needs addressing. What is causing the growth in mental health problems? Do we have more nowadays than previously? That is debatable.

The causes—there are a variety—are debatable too but, without a doubt, many of us would agree that social media had quite a significant impact. This relates back to food, body image, appearance, bullying and how younger people relate to each other on social media, which is leading to mental health problems. I believe that, behind an awful lot of the mental health problems that we encounter with children, there is a fear of what they are encountering in life—and a fear of climate change, which is growing and worrying children. We have to do all we can to try to address that.

There is a poverty of food in many areas in the country, but I believe too that we have a poverty of spirit. This goes back to resilience and self-reliance, but it is an important factor that we have to see whether we are doing enough in schools to develop that self-reliance. I was very heartened to hear of the work that the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, described that she is undertaking, and we look forward to the results of the experimentation that is taking place in the north-east. I hope that it is successful.

To move away from that issue, I quickly recall that the noble Lord, Lord Layard, helped Tony Blair and helped significantly with regard to mental health by persuading the Government to introduce talking therapies. Some 22,000 people are now employed on that for adults. The noble Lord, Lord Layard, has done some recent work on addiction, and maybe he should do some work with children, too. We should look to see whether we can have a greater expansion at school levels. I leave it now to my good friend and colleague to speak with more authority about mental health than I can.

Photo of Baroness Hollins Baroness Hollins Crossbench 4:45, 22 February 2024

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, on an excellent opening speech. I agree that our schools could do much more to prepare pupils for the challenges of today.

I declare my interest as founder and chair of a small mental health charity, Books Beyond Words, which I shall mention briefly later. Before I became a Member of your Lordships’ House, I was a clinical academic psychiatrist, specialising in child and adolescent mental health as well as in learning disabilities. As a community psychiatrist, I regularly went into schools—usually special schools—to consult teachers and think with them about the needs of their children. I agree that prevention is better than waiting for a crisis.

Like other noble Lords, I have had briefings from a number of mental health charities working in schools to improve children’s mental health, including Young Minds and Speech and Language UK. The briefings highlight that more than one-third of children and young people with mental health needs also have special educational needs, including speech and language difficulties.

This week is Emotional Health Week, promoted by the Centre for Emotional Health. Yesterday, its focus was on child development. Research clearly shows the impact that our relationships and emotional health in childhood—particularly in early childhood, but throughout the school years as well—will have on our future life chances. Last week the centre, in partnership with Demos, launched a paper called Strong Foundations: Why Everyone Needs Good Emotional Health - and How to Achieve It. It made several recommendations, including that the Department for Education should develop evidence-based guidance for schools and colleges on how best to implement learning about emotional health—in other words, what I call emotional literacy. This report included a recognition of how picture books can support social and emotional learning for children.

This resonates with me, as the founder and chair of Books Beyond Words. The charity works with artists to create stories in pictures about the everyday challenges that children face. Recently, the charity has been working in a pilot group of schools to see how word-free books can support the emotional well-being of primary school children as well as young people with special educational needs and improve teacher confidence in talking about common mental health challenges. An independent evaluation found a strong causal link between the creative reading of word-free stories, usually in small groups, and pupil progress towards improved emotional well-being, stronger peer relationships and an ability to express a range of feelings. Being able to recognise and express our feelings, such as anxiety, frustration and stress, can reduce the distressed or challenging behaviour that sometimes leads to the school exclusions highlighted by Young Minds. Exclusions are not the answer. Children with poor emotional health find it difficult to learn and are reluctant to go to school.

Using pictures rather than words helps children of all ages and abilities to engage with the topic and to express themselves. They can identify their feelings, discuss coping strategies and be empowered to speak up for themselves. After just one term of using word-free books once a week, 95% of pupils made progress towards being able to express and recognise a range of emotions. Case studies showed that attendance improved, and they had better than expected achievements in tests—all evidence of the importance of good emotional health.

I suggest that schools have a crucial role in fostering a nurturing environment and moving away from a punitive culture. Children need to feel comfortable and safe at school. School targets need to be more holistic. Ignoring well-being does not lead to overall better outcomes. Schools need to adopt a whole-school approach to mental health and well-being, which aims to promote mental well-being and to intervene early when common mental conditions present, such as depression, anxiety and self-harm. A whole-school approach to mental health and well-being is a cohesive and collaborative action in and by a school community, strategically constructed with the school leadership—that is really important; school leadership has to be on board. There also needs to be an ethos that promotes respect and diversity. The curriculum and teaching should help children and young people to develop their resilience and support their social and emotional learning.

We know that childhood is a period of extraordinary potential. Get it right, and we are investing in the whole of society. We know that adverse childhood experiences are key predictors of poor physical and mental health and well-being throughout a person’s life. We know that prevention is better than cure. I consider that a child’s emotional well-being and mental health cannot be considered in isolation from their school environment and the culture within that school.

There is burnout among some school staff, recruitment and retention issues and school staff reporting that they feel unequipped to manage the mental health needs of their pupils. There are high levels of persistent absence, and we know that young people who are absent from school are more likely to have a mental disorder; a punitive approach is therefore rarely the answer to poor school attendance.

Let me tell your Lordships about Sarah. She started to struggle with her mental health when she started secondary school. She was involved in a car accident over the summer holidays and became increasingly anxious about leaving her home. She had already been finding school difficult and started missing days at school. When she did manage to get to school, she was told off by teachers for her poor attendance, which made it more difficult to attend. Nobody asked her why it was so difficult to go to school. Her anxiety got worse, as did her attendance. Then her parents were asked to pay fines because of her poor attendance. She has now been out of school for a year and remains on a waiting list for CAMHS.

What are the solutions? I do not really have time to talk about them, but I agree that schools need to be more fun. They also need to be more real, addressing the things that really matter to children and young people.

Photo of Lord Vaizey of Didcot Lord Vaizey of Didcot Conservative 4:53, 22 February 2024

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak briefly in the gap. I had put this debate in my diary but failed to put down my name to speak—a schoolboy error for which I deserve extensive detention. I declare my interest as an adviser to Common Sense Media, a US not-for-profit that focuses on protecting kids from the harms of the internet. I am also a trustee of its UK charity.

I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, on calling this excellent debate. I agreed with a huge amount of what she said. There was a tantalising moment when she said that the classroom remains a Victorian construct; I could not agree with her more—in fact, it is a line that I trot out regularly at the kind of London dinner parties that Liz Truss has taken randomly to be so disparaging about. I find it astonishing—this is not to be rude in any shape or form our educators and teachers—that the classroom structure has not moved on for 150 years. There is a great debate to be had in this Chamber at another time, calling on the huge expertise that exists here, about how we reconstruct education; the purpose of the classroom; the use of technology, paradoxically, to provide personalised curriculums to allow children to proceed at their own pace; and the role of exams. I am prepared to be as radical as possible; I for one would, for example, abolish school uniform. But that is a whole other debate.

I want to focus, in the short time I have, on two brief issues. First, I heard my noble friend Lord Effingham mention the mobile phone at the end of his speech: social media is the great issue that our children now face inside and outside school; it is the biggest impact on children’s well-being and mental health in the last 10 years. A lot of it can be for the good, but we know that children—girls far more than boys—are bombarded with content, some of it inappropriate, and text messages, and this brings the opportunity for bullying. Common Sense Media, for example, provides a digital curriculum; we have constructed a partnership with the NSPCC to promote that in schools. It is about educating parents, but it is also about helping children become savvy digital citizens, and, above all, helping teachers, who are behind the curve, and their own pupils, on the use of technology. This is an absolutely vital issue and should be front and centre of our thinking.

The second issue I want to concentrate on, which was so ably covered in detail by the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, who knows so much about this subject, is the role of the arts and creativity in our schools and education. I stand guilty as charged, as the Arts Minister who could not save some of the creative programmes that were set up by the previous Labour Government; they were the most vulnerable when it came to having to reduce our budget. But one scheme I was able to save, by working with the Department for Education on music education, was the astonishing In Harmony scheme, which is one of the most emotional things I have ever been to. It is exactly what noble Lords are talking about; it is not about learning music, it is about learning confidence. It was about kids aged nine and 10 educating their own parents about what they were learning and gaining enormous confidence from performing like that.

I applaud the Government in focusing on the rigour of reading and maths, and I accept that Nick Gibb can be proud that we are moving up the league tables in how well our kids are now reading and doing in maths. Those are the building blocks of education and success in life, but creativity is also a fantastic way of building confidence and academic rigour, and, as I think the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said, it is a space to think. Above all, it is a route for kids who are not suited necessarily to the academic path to find a way forward. I was always a great sceptic about free school meals, and I have done a complete volte-face on that as well because, if you have kids in school from age five to 18, feeding them well and properly must be a no-brainer. Then there is sport as well. My message is that it is called the soft stuff but it is unbelievably important.

Photo of Lord Storey Lord Storey Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Education) 4:57, 22 February 2024

I too want to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for securing this important debate. The noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, will be pleased to know that Everton ward, one of the most deprived communities in Liverpool, is celebrating 10 years of In Harmony—I have been invited—and it has been life-changing for some of those young people.

I am changing what I was going to say. For starters, the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, ought to have been a primary teacher—no two ways about it. It is only nine or 10 years ago that I was the head of a three form-entry primary school in a place called Knowsley, outside Liverpool, with 500 pupils from one of the most deprived communities in the country. We had 96% attendance, the children wanted to come to school, and they were enthusiastic. We had science trails with parents, technology days, and all the children, from year 3 to year 6, went away to the Isle of Wight for either a weekend or a full week. Parents did all sorts of things for the school, and raised huge amounts of money. I look back and ask: what, sadly, went wrong?

By the way, this school had three Ofsted inspections, and we were a good school for all three of them. The results were above the national average; this is not me boasting—it was due to the teachers and pupils of that school. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, that we did not get an Artsmark—but we did get a gold Artsmark. One of my very average teachers was doing a literacy lesson when the Artsmark inspector came, so I was thinking, “Oh no”, but then she came back and told me it was the best lesson she had ever seen—that the teacher had done the literacy lesson with percussion instruments. I thought, “Wow, I’ve underestimated him”. He was brilliant and rose to the occasion. With all that enthusiasm, the pupils wanted to learn and come into school; 97% of our pupils went to the local secondary school and the links were fantastic. It was not just my school—the five other primary schools and the Church of England primary school all worked together and the local authority gave us support when we were in difficulty. We supported each other. I do not know why we have lost all that.

Several noble Lords have talked about the alarming mental health statistics for our children and young people. Two sets of statistics have not been mentioned. First, terribly sadly, the numbers of young people taking their own lives, the numbers of young people self-harming and the numbers of young people with eating disorders are all increasing every year. Secondly—of all the statistics we have mentioned, this really concerns me—10% of children aged five to 16 are clinically diagnosed as having mental health problems, but 70% of them had not had appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age. Had we intervened as early as we could have done and had the support mechanisms there, we might have prevented some of the problems we face further down the line. It is a bit like the discussions we used to have about special educational needs; if we can diagnose autism or dyslexia at an early stage then we can intervene and do something about it, and the same should be true of mental health.

I am sure the Minister will tell us about the resources the Government are spending on mental health, which are to be welcomed and applauded, but we face a mental health emergency and there is a huge hole in the current provision. Last year, fewer than half—44%—of the 1.5 million children who needed additional support had not received a CAMHS appointment. A report conducted last year by the Children’s Commissioner found that the average waiting time in England between referral and the start of treatment is the highest it has been for two years. Some 35% of those classified as having high psychological distress say that they have not received the support they sought and Barnardo’s points out that children with moderate mental health issues are falling through the gaps, as they are considered too acute for intervention from mental health services but do not meet the threshold for CAMHS, as my noble friend Lady Tyler said.

Schools have been helping children and young people with mental health problems through online tutoring, particularly those with special educational needs, some of those in alternative provision and those who are home-educated. That scheme will come to an end this summer, with its £200 million not going back into education but being returned to the Treasury. That is a lost opportunity. I know that the tutoring programme was brought in during Covid, but it was immensely successful and has helped huge numbers of children, particularly those in deprived communities. Will the Minister look at how we can keep that programme? It is no answer to say that it can be provided from the pupil premium; that is already overstretched and in many schools some of that money is used for mental health support.

What should we do in this mental health emergency? My noble friend Lord Russell told the House what we would do: we would put a statutory duty on every state-funded school to make provision for an education mental health practitioner or a school counsellor. A mental health practitioner means a person with a graduate- or postgraduate-level qualification accredited by Health Education England. For schools with 100 or fewer pupils, the duty may be satisfied by a collaborative provision between schools.

We also need urgent financing, training and provision for CAMHS staff, and indeed for school support, whether it comes from the school psychological service or from speech therapists. Children with speech and language challenges are twice as likely to have difficulties with mental health.

I am sure that many colleagues will have received numerous briefings from charities and professional bodies, and I thank them. I was particularly taken with the Mental Health Foundation, which had a very pupil-focused approach, with clear, school-based actions: school anti-bullying programmes; the whole-school approach that the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, mentioned; targeted programmes; implementation of a trauma-informed approach; supporting the most minoritised and marginalised pupils; looking at comparable studies in other countries; and learning from the experiences of young people themselves. There was the remarkable quote from one young person:

“Despite the profound impact on individuals and communities, mental health remains largely undervalued and shrouded in silence”.

I end with a comment the Minister made in response to the Select Committee report on the 11-16 curriculum. As was pointed out, sadly, all those recommendations were rejected by the Government. The noble Baroness, Lady Barran, said:

“Exams are a great leveller, whatever a pupil’s origin or level of disadvantage”.

Exams may or may not be a great leveller, but they are also very stressful. We have more tests and more exams for our children and young people than any other country in the world. Perhaps our target-driven schools need to be more focused on a child-centred approach, which would certainly help with mental health issues.

I end by repeating the quote from that young person:

“Despite the profound impact on individuals and communities, mental health remains largely undervalued and shrouded in silence”.

Photo of Baroness Twycross Baroness Twycross Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 5:07, 22 February 2024

My Lords, this has been a truly interesting and varied debate. I join others in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, on securing it. There can be nothing more important in a child’s development than ensuring that they have good mental and physical health, not least in what many noble Lords have noted is a complex and often confusing world.

Children need a healthy, caring, constructive, lively and varied school environment, of the type to which the noble Baroness referred in her opening remarks. As the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said, good mental health is a prerequisite for learning. My noble friend Lord Touhig powerfully articulated the need for children to have the confidence to succeed.

I also agree wholeheartedly with my noble friend Lady Morris that academic education and mental health and well-being should not be seen as being in competition with each other. I am very much in the camp which believes that schools should prepare children for life and work, and liked how my noble friend Lady Morris articulated how this might be balanced in relation to exams, and how people view exam success and failure.

I do not, however, think that this excludes fun or creativity. I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, on the need for creative arts to be a key part of school life and the lives of students. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester also spoke powerfully to this point, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, on the work of the charity, Books Beyond Words.

My noble friend Lady Blake did not speak in this debate, but I understand she did great work as leader of Leeds City Council in ensuring that all children had access to learning a musical instrument. This is the type of thing that can enrich children’s lives and make school life much more rewarding.

I found the contribution of the noble Earl, Lord Effingham, on physical activity and food very compelling. Clearly, the quality of food in school is an issue that my noble friend Lord Brooke has campaigned on with vigour, not least on sugar, and will continue to do so.

From what we have heard today, none of us can be in any doubt that we have a huge mental health crisis among children and young people. As the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, also made clear, schools have a very distinct role in identifying and triaging issues. Schools and teachers do incredible work in a difficult environment. Schools sometimes struggle to meet the needs of their students, and teachers do not always have the support they need, or the time or expertise to identify and deal with student mental health issues. CAMHS cannot deal with the scale of the demand, with unacceptable delays for treatment that risk an individual’s mental health issues escalating.

I return to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, about the focus on fun. I think that we all now want to visit his school, so he should expect a queue for us to do that.

Photo of Lord Storey Lord Storey Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Education)

He should change to being a primary teacher.

Photo of Baroness Twycross Baroness Twycross Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

He does not have to become a primary school teacher; he can carry on as he is.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, mentioned the need for a whole-school approach, as did others, but what we really need is an understanding of how we get a better whole-system approach—I would welcome the Minister’s thoughts on that. Surely, that is what is needed to address the issue. There is a clear need for the Government to drive forward and work much more on a cross-departmental basis. The NHS, individual schools, charities and local authorities cannot solve the child mental health crisis alone. The noble Lord, Lord Wei, discussed the need for school pathways to be made clearer and simpler for parents and children, and I would be interested to hear the Minister’s reflection on his point about the correlation with decisions that parents might make on home schooling.

I will give a personal view of an amazing meeting I had this week with a fabulous group of students from the Ark King Solomon Academy near Edgware Road. It was a reminder of how a good school can provide a truly nurturing environment. The students spoke to me about the mental health provision in their school with their vice-principal and the charity Place2Be, whose services the young people had accessed. They told me that Covid had led to isolation, that they needed more clubs and activity to improve their well-being, and that PHSE could do so much more than it does currently to help young people understand their mental health and how to deal with any issues they might face. They also said that their parents often did not know how to help, so the parents also needed additional support to help deal with the issue.

The provision that the students had accessed had given them a sense of belonging and a trusted space. But they said that there was a need for more provision, so that students did not have to wait to access services. The students were hugely articulate in how they spoke about their experience and the need for young people to build resilience. I have no doubt that their school and their parents are incredibly proud of them. After they met me, they went to No. 10 to deliver a letter to the Prime Minister; I would be very grateful if the Minister could ensure that it reaches the right person for a response.

We cannot talk about the role of schools in mental health without discussing the wider context. The scale of the problem was mentioned by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Sterling, who noted that the rise means that, on average, five children in a class of 30 are likely to have mental health issues. He also noted the recruitment crisis in specialists.

The noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, asked what was probably the most valid question of the whole debate: what is going on? In 2022, 1.4 million children were referred to CAMHS, with 270,000 children waiting longer than three months to begin treatment. The Local Government Association has found that at least one in six children and young people aged seven to 16 has a probable mental health disorder, which increases to one in four for young people aged 17 to 19. The Children’s Commissioner, who has been quoted several times, has raised particular concerns around older teenage girls; she found in her report last year that nearly two in five of 16 to 17 year-old girls were unhappy with their mental health. Things going wrong— such as when children and young people do not get support in a timely way—can lead to forced hospitalisation. In the worst cases, unresolved mental health issues lead to self-harm and attempted or successful suicide, as the noble Lord, Lord Storey, highlighted in his remarks.

Children living in poverty, where parents separate or have a financial crisis, or children whose own parents have poor mental health or poor health, are even more likely to have poor mental health themselves. As my noble friend Lord Touhig said, children with speech and language difficulties are twice as likely to have a mental health issue than their peers—the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, also highlighted this point. This is also the case for children and young people with a wide range of other special needs, physical illness or disabilities.

Can the Minister say what the government view is on how provision is currently tailored towards the needs of different groups of children, and what more can be done to ensure that children and young adults get access in a timely way? To tackle an issue of this scale, you surely need a thorough understanding of what needs to be addressed—and with apologies to the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, I do not think that policy should be made routinely at London dinner parties.

Can the Minister clarify whether the Government intend to start to routinely collect statistics on mental health provision in schools, including the type of provision and therapy provided? As the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said, this should include a cross-referencing of this with other data, including absenteeism. If not, can the Minister tell the House when the Government at the very least intend to carry out a new survey, given that it is almost a decade since the last one found that only 62% of schools offered counselling services? However, I understand that that figure has risen. Can the Minister provide information on how many schools now have counselling services? Are the Government, like Labour, committed to specialist mental health support for children and young people in every school? Furthermore, can the Government provide a demographic breakdown of the number of children accessing mental health services in schools and through CAMHS?

Finally, I acknowledge that I am clear that the Government know that there is a problem. However, I do not feel that they have yet managed to introduce a comprehensive solution—the proposed ban on phones in schools is evidence of this. Many noble Lords referenced social media and phones. However, many schools have introduced this, and head teachers have noted that they cannot control their use out of school. Having heard today’s debate, what more is the Minister able to commit to the Government doing to address this epidemic of mental health issues in children and young people, both in and out of school, to ensure that our young people get the support they need to thrive both socially and academically through their childhoods to successful adult lives?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lords Spokesperson (Equalities) 5:17, 22 February 2024

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, on securing this important debate and thank all noble Lords for their contributions. I feel a long letter coming on, so I will do my best to cover the points raised, but I feel pretty confident that I will not get through all of them.

I felt very uncomfortable and was trying not to be defensive while listening to the opening speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and the other speeches. What I heard from your Lordships today is what I often hear going around the country, which is that “My school, my children’s school, my grandchildren’s school and the school I teach in are fantastic” but “the system is broken”. “The system” is made up of all those brilliant schools, with brilliant teachers and a heroic generation of children, and I think at our peril do we have such a negative tone about our education system and our schools, which are doing an amazing job all around the country.

There are many reasons why they are doing so well, but I will pick just on a few. The first is that this country has been the first to really be led by the evidence of what works—not what we think or feel might work but what the evidence actually shows works in the country. All of us in this House know that it is a great deal easier to write policy than it is to implement it well, and the focus that has been placed on what actually works in practice is absolutely critical. I encourage your Lordships to look at the difference in what is happening in our schools in England and those in Scotland and in Wales, and I think my case rests.

We used evidence in relation to curriculum and extracurricular activities, and in relation to pedagogy and behaviour. For those noble Lords who question the importance of attainment, that in itself is an incredibly important protective factor for our children’s mental health. The noble Lord, Lord Storey, talked about a sense of music and other cultural activities having been lost in our schools. As your Lordships know—I mention it often at the Dispatch Box, because it is true—every week I visit schools and I see what is happening on the ground.

The noble Baroness talked about schools being forced into trusts. The schools that go into trusts because they are sponsored schools have failed the community of children that they are serving and, for whatever reasons, therefore need support. I am well aware that parents, children and staff are frequently concerned at the time of transfer, but they should visit those schools a year later. I went to a school in Liverpool and a year to the day since they had been sponsored, I said to the children, “Tell me what it was like a year ago. What’s the difference?” A child said to me, “You wouldn’t have felt safe in the corridor, Miss”. Our children need to feel safe, not only in the corridor. She also talked about what mountains she was going to climb, metaphorically, so it was not just about corridors.

I want to pick up on the sense of this very critical and forbidding tone that your Lordships suggest that schools apparently use in communicating with parents and children. Again, I absolutely understand that there are times when enforcement is important, but everything we are doing and everything that I see in schools starts with support and encouragement to work out where a child will thrive and flourish, and what their individual strengths are that can be built on. I sense that the noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, had the same sense when she met the children from the Ark school the other day. I will do my very best to ensure that they get a speedy response to their letter.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, talked about attendance. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, for underlining how attendance is so important for the safety of our children. I urge those noble Lords who are worried about the policy in relation to fines: look at the guidance that we have produced for schools and its emphasis on support. I urge them to talk to schools. Their concern, when I talk to them, is about inconsistency in the implementation of fines for non-attendance rather than the policy itself.

I absolutely agree that mild anxiety becomes much greater anxiety for the majority of children if they miss significant amounts of school, so we are working incredibly hard on attendance. For the most vulnerable children, we have extended our attendance mental programme and we will have 32 attendance hubs, meaning that 2,000 schools will be helped to tackle persistent absence with that peer-to-peer support. We are also doing a great deal of work analysing the data around attendance. As I said in response to a Question earlier this week, we are seeing green shoots in relation to attendance this term, particularly in primary but also in year 7 in secondary.

I always enjoy listening to the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, and her reflections on education. We need to focus on what schools can do and not ask them to do things they cannot do. The noble Baroness talked about giving confidence back to children, but we also need to make sure that teachers and school leaders feel confident in their approach.

I turn to some of the wider issues in the debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, anticipated well that I would acknowledge that there has been a worrying rise in mental health issues that need specialist support. Of course, teachers and school staff are not mental health specialists. The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, referred to the rollout of mental health support teams. We are extending those teams to an estimated 44% of pupils and learners by the end of this financial year and to at least 50% by the end of March 2025. To address the noble Earl’s question, our original plans have been accelerated, but these are genuinely new and additional staff, so it takes time to recruit and train them, but we see this as an absolute priority.

This debate shows how crucial it is that we support schools. We also recognise that they have a real role in creating a safe, calm and supportive environment for pupils, where they want to attend and where they are able to learn and flourish. That is particularly important for the most vulnerable children. Here I acknowledge the remarks of the noble Baronesses, Lady Tyler and Lady Hollins, whom I thank for all the work she does, particularly in relation to children with learning difficulties.

Our schools’ role in promoting this environment and offering a rich and varied experience that encourages the creativity that your Lordships talked about, the activity and development, through a broad and balanced curriculum, and a high-quality enrichment offer, is incredibly important. Schools are and should be places where children can experience joy—it does not say “fun” in my speech, but I agree about fun—find good and respectful communities, and have experiences that build their resilience and sense of well-being.

The noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, asked how we can flex that to make sure that it always reflects particular needs and individual pupils. That is rooted in having a culture that watches out for every child, every day, and makes sure that the relationships that the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, talked about are in place, so that children feel able to come forward and talk and teachers can spot their needs.

Good behaviour is critical to ensuring a safe environment that children will feel happy to go to. That is why the Government have put such emphasis on high expectations of behaviour. Many of your Lordships quoted the Children’s Commissioner and I know from speaking to her that it is particularly children with special educational needs and disabilities or children who are vulnerable who need to feel safe in school. They thrive when they feel safe in school. School leaders with whom I have talked emphasise that it is not just in lessons but, crucially, in unstructured time—when the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, is standing by the edge of the playground, spotting stuff—when children need to feel safe and need to know absolutely what the expectations are of their behaviour.

Also, on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, children need to feel that they have a part in this and a sense of agency. The noble Lord referred to the work of Place2Be, which I know well and admire even more. That sense of pupil leadership councils and so on contributing to the culture of a school, particularly around behaviour, is extremely important. We have set those things out in our behaviour guidance; established behaviour hubs, which are supporting 750 schools; and introduced a behaviour and culture national professional qualification for teachers.

A number of your Lordships, including my noble friends Lord Sterling and Lord Wei, spoke about children with special educational needs. They are right that we absolutely need to emphasise earlier identification. We are working to reduce the adversarial nature of the system and are putting in support for school staff, integrating in the initial teacher training and the early careers framework a much greater focus on special educational needs and disabilities in teacher training. The noble Lord, Lord Touhig, spoke about speech and language, which is an important area of focus and obviously one of the priority areas for the practice guidance in the SEND improvement plan. I would be delighted to meet with Speech and Language UK.

My noble friend Lord Sterling and the noble Lord, Lord Storey, among others, spoke about access to CAMHS. The young people’s mental health workforce has increased by 46% since the NHS long-term plan started in 2019, but I absolutely accept your Lordships’ reflections, and the feedback I get when I talk to schools, that that may have increased but schools still feel that it is a very hard service to access.

I turn to enrichment. The department is committed to ensuring that young people have access to great extracurricular opportunities. The noble Baroness, Lady Bull, talked about the importance of partnerships. She will know that we are testing ways to increase local co-ordination of enrichment activities across schools through our enrichment partnerships pilot, which is a giant project between the Department for Education and DCMS. That is in addition to our work with DCMS to make sure that children get the most from the national youth guarantee, which supports children to have access to regular out-of-school activities. In particular, we are working together to offer the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award to all mainstream secondary schools in England by 2025, which perhaps offers some of the blood, sweat and tears that the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, referred to—hopefully no violence, though.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bull, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester spoke about the importance of cultural education, as did my noble friend Lord Vaizey. That is obviously part of a rich school experience, including wider arts, music and creative subjects. That is why we are investing £115 million in cultural education up to 2025.

Turning to sport, I absolutely hear the importance that my noble friend Lord Effingham and the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, place on sport. We are going to publish non-statutory guidance this spring, illustrating how schools will be able to provide two hours of PE and equal access. As someone who swam in very cold water this morning and tries to every morning, I totally agree with the noble Lord about the impact on one’s mood. It is hard to get out of cold water without feeling better—unless you stay in too long, of course, but that is for another debate.

The noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, raised the importance of school food, as did my noble friend Lord Effingham. I offer the noble Lord a meeting outside the Chamber to update him on some of the work the department is doing on this. We now include cooking and nutrition as part of the national curriculum in design and technology, and it is mandatory in key stages 1 to 3. A new GCSE in food preparation and nutrition was introduced in 2016.

My noble friend Lord Wei asked what we are doing to support home education. We remain committed to introducing statutory local authority registers for children not in school, and a duty for local authorities to provide support for home-educating parents. I absolutely recognise some of the issues he raised relating to children with special educational needs and disabilities.

I will also just mention, in honour of her green genes, that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, knows, we are doing a great deal in schools with our climate change and sustainability strategy, which sets out a number of initiatives from early years, through school and into college that are designed to get children into nature and inspire them by spending time in nature, giving them the tools to plan and develop climate action plans for their school and their community, and then act on them. We really believe that that connection with nature is so important to their mental health.

I think your Lordships will have felt quite how strongly I feel about how much our schools are doing to support our children and their mental health. As your Lordships’ speeches underlined, no single thing will address this problem. There is no silver bullet, but that combination of engaging curricular and extracurricular activities and making sure that we protect avenues for student voice and agency will all contribute, combined with having specialist well-being and mental health support. That needs to be underpinned by a firm and supportive behaviour policy where children feel safe and thrive, and where teachers feel fulfilled.

The bit I really do agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, is on Yeats and lighting the fire. We do that through those things and through the relationships that the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, alluded to, but unlike the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, I think that is exactly what our schools are doing.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 5:38, 22 February 2024

My Lords, I thank the Minister and everyone who has taken part in what has been a rich and deeply informative debate—I might even say your Lordships’ House at its best. I think I have a couple of minutes, so I want to respond and highlight some things that particularly deserve to be highlighted.

I commend the noble Lord, Lord Storey, on his courage in raising the issue of child suicide. It is very difficult to talk about and very disturbing, but it is important that it was raised in the debate. I thank him for that.

Slightly more lightly, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey: no detention, I do not think. I am delighted to hear from the Benches opposite such a radical idea of how we need to get away from Victorian schooling.

I want particularly to address the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, to accept his invitation—I believe I should be at the front of the queue, given it is clearly a long one—and perhaps to apologise. Maybe my speech did not make it clear enough that I was talking about what is happening in a significant number of schools but by no means all of them, and about the direction of policy and ideology that is being pushed towards schools. I mention, for example, Space Studio West London, which I visited with Learn with the Lords. It struck me, from my two-hour visit, as a very inclusive, welcoming and caring school that has really strong approaches. I have no doubt that they exist, but I feel that they are having to run against the tide, rather than being supported in the way that they should be.

I will now pick up some points from the Minister. She said that the department is operating on the basis of evidence of what works. But today, when we are talking about mental health, the figures cited by the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, about children’s experience of schools and how they feel about them were deeply shocking. That is evidence and it really needs to be taken into account.

On schools being forced into trusts, Ofsted is a whole other debate. Very importantly, after what the Minister said about the tone of dealing with parents, we heard testimony from all around your Lordships’ House, particularly from the noble Lord, Lord Wei. He said there needs to be an approach of collaboration rather than confrontation, and that targets for school attendance often mean being pushed to not act in children’s best interests. Those important testimonies from experience really need to be listened to.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bull, joined the right reverend Prelate and others in talking about the importance of the arts and music. The noble Baroness gave her classic virtuoso performance; I particularly liked the reference to how that is related to civic behaviours —voting and volunteering et cetera, and the relationship of that to cultural education. On food—one of my favourite things—we did not actually get the word microbiome in there, but I thank all noble Lords who brought that up. It is a crucial issue.

I want to finish by referencing two speeches. The first is that of the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley. It was an important and obviously very well-informed speech. The word I kept hearing again and again was “pressure”—the pressure coming from exams. I think that feeling has been reflected right around your Lordships’ House; that is how schools are suffering. There is also the way in which schools are not embedded in communities in the same way they used to be, while having to compete against each other. I think the noble Lord, Lord Storey, talked about co-operation and the importance of schools working as a network—not being set against each other in league tables, but working together.

Finally, I go to the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, who of course brings no party axe to grind to your Lordships’ House; she brings absolutely expert experience. She summed up a lot of the debate, from all sides of the House, in saying that children need to feel safe in school, that ignoring well-being does not lead to better outcomes and that we need to address the things that really matter. That is the message to finish this debate with; it really needs to be listened to by all sides of your Lordships’ House.

Motion agreed.

House adjourned at 5.43 pm.