Mental Health and Wellbeing in Schools

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:17 pm on 4th December 2018.

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Photo of Luciana Berger Luciana Berger Labour/Co-operative, Liverpool, Wavertree 3:17 pm, 4th December 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) on securing this vital debate. The speed at which Members are speaking this afternoon and the interest shows that we could have spoken for at least three hours and still had more time and more interest. If it was not for what was going on in the other Chamber, even more colleagues would be here with us this afternoon.

There is much that I could reflect upon, but I particularly want to reflect on the Government’s Green Paper—their strategy, and their actual plan for young people’s mental health between now and 2030. The Green Paper was called “Transforming children and young people’s mental health provision”. That is the key intervention in which the Government set out their plans. It is important that we consider it in the context of this afternoon’s debate.

I agree with the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon when she says that—let us not mince our words—we see a mental health crisis in our young people. I do not use those words lightly. We have only to reflect on the prevalence study that came out the other week, a repetition of the study that tells us how many young people are affected by one or more mental health conditions. We saw in that repeat of the study—last done in 2004—that there has been a 28% increase in the number of children affected. We used to use the statistic one in 10, or three in every classroom. It is now one in eight children, which for me is a very serious consideration. The Government need to urgently reflect upon and revisit their Green Paper, which was predicated on data that is now 14 years old. We now have the results that give us a reason to see the Government come forward with revised plans. Unfortunately, I do not believe that it is good enough.

I am a member of the Health and Social Care Committee; together with the Education Committee we produced a report on the Green Paper. We heard from expert witnesses, students in schools, and teachers. Many points reflected on the Government’s plans and set out what was missing, and what needs to be addressed to make a real difference. There are many points that I could reflect on, but I want to focus my remarks on the most salient points. I urge Members, but particularly the Minister, to reflect on the joint Select Committee report, because it contains many recommendations. It is fair to say that we were disappointed by the Government’s response, which did not adequately respond to serious concerns raised by many people throughout the country.

When I reflect on the experience of young people in my constituency, I am aware that a previously exemplary service in which young people were seen within three weeks—from referral to assessment and then treatment—now has hundreds waiting 24 weeks just for an assessment. That is not good enough. A special educational needs teacher, who wrote to me previously, came to my constituency surgery on Friday and said that the threshold to get access to services is now even further out of reach, even for children under 11. There are children aged four who cannot get access to any services. That is not peculiar to Liverpool; it is replicated across the country. We had a 43% cut to our service, and not in just one year—it was repeated in the second year; that was the main service for young people. Thresholds for access to care are rising, and I reiterate the point that children have had to self-harm or attempt suicide to get in. That is not good enough.

Colleagues have touched on the issue of resources. It is not just about money, but let us be honest: some resources are needed to ensure that children are properly supported. Schools are an important place. I want to reiterate what I said when I asked the Minister a question in the Select Committee. It is an important point, and gets to the crux of the matter. My greatest concern about the Green Paper and the Government’s plans for now until 2030 is that they will only replace what has already been lost, because the Government have no idea—no assessment has been done—how many peer mentors, counsellors, educational psychologists, pastoral care workers and school nurses have been lost from the country’s schools. Those are just some of the roles—vital services—that schools that are passionate about students’ mental health no longer have the funds to invest in. Schools in my constituency had access to a service called Seedlings. It was pulled from all those schools. The only ones that could afford it were those that met a threshold of a certain number of children on free school meals, in relation to pupil premium. Those just below the threshold could no longer afford it.

Those cuts have combined with other cuts, not just in schools but in local authorities. They affect children’s centres, the educational psychologists previously funded by local authorities, Sure Start centres and youth centres—because it is not only what happens in school that is relevant, but what happens afterwards. Many young people would turn to youth workers as a trusted adult if their mental health was suffering. The combination of all those things is the toxic situation we are in. Young people are now seen only when they are in a crisis; the system is geared only to what we do then. We need proper early intervention and prevention, to keep young people well. Schools cannot be expected to do it all.

From the teachers’ representations that we heard in evidence, it was clear that they want to do everything possible to support students in the classroom, but many demands are made on them and the current academic system adds many pressures, not only for students but for teachers. A staggering 81% of teachers say that they have considered leaving teaching in the past year because of the pressures of their workload. The combination of those factors means that there is every reason to think it is not good enough to expect every school to have just one designated mental health lead—one teacher who is trained for two days—when the Government accept, in their own evaluation, that that arrangement has an opportunity cost, in taking those teachers away from other activities that they are expected to do in school.

The social media issue is something that the Government definitely need to address, but even if we removed all the challenges of social media we would not solve the problem because, judging by the evidence that we heard, there are so many other challenges, but particularly issues to do with the social determinants of health and poverty.

I shall draw my remarks to a close because other Members want to speak. We cannot expect our schools to do it all. Young people are really suffering; this is a crisis, with a 28% increase in the figures, even going by those that came out the other week. I urgently request that the Government look again at the Green Paper strategy, because it is simply not good enough.