Mental Health and Wellbeing in Schools

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:36 pm on 4th December 2018.

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Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families) 3:36 pm, 4th December 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank Layla Moran for securing this important debate on mental health and wellbeing in schools, and other hon. Members who have made valuable contributions.

Despite all the warm rhetoric about this issue, the reality is that, when it comes to real action and real change to children and young people’s mental health, the Government are failing children and setting them up for future struggles. Schools are integral to the mental wellbeing of children and young people. They are where a lot of children spend a large majority of their time. For children for whom home is not a good place to be, or is a cause of distress, it can be the only safe, consistent element of their lives.

Last December’s Green Paper, “Transforming children and young people’s mental health provision”, seemed to signal, at last, a joined-up approach and a commitment between the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Education to address the crisis in children and young people’s mental health. As the report of the Education and Health Committees said, the Government’s strategy lacks ambition. The Committees said that it was narrow in scope and would put significant pressure on the teaching workforce. The report was entitled “Failing a generation”.

Sadly, just weeks ago, the NHSMental Health of Children and Young People in England” survey, referred to by my hon. Friend Luciana Berger, who has long been a champion of improving mental health provision across the board, confirmed the failing of that generation. It found that one in eight five to 19-year-olds had at least one mental health disorder. That means that, in an average classroom, almost four pupils will be suffering. The Royal College of Psychiatrists estimates that that equates to about 1.23 million children and young people. The survey also found that 400,000 children and young people identified as being in need of support were not getting any whatever.

The proposed mental health support teams for schools have been heavily criticised, including by Barnardo’s, which accused the Government of

“sleep-walking into the deepening crisis in children’s mental health.”

As they stand, the plans are piecemeal and will serve only to deepen the existing postcode lottery. It is anticipated that just 20% to 25% will benefit from the support by 2022-23. I would appreciate it if the Minister explained to us how recruitment for the teams is going, what the arrangements for the designated mental health leads in schools are, where the first set of trailblazers are, and what the rationale was for choosing those trailblazer areas.

Furthermore, the teams will be for mild to moderate mental health issues. What happens to children who desperately need intervention from child and adolescent mental health services and specialist trauma-based support, such as the children my hon. Friend Rachael Maskell referred to who are suffering from eating disorders and suicidal thoughts?

What about children looked after in kinship care, care leavers and child refugees? The Children’s Commissioner noted that only 104,000 of more than 338,000 children referred to CAMHS in 2017 received treatment in that year. That should come as no surprise to the Minister, when we know that the number of doctors working in child and adolescent psychiatry has fallen in every single month this year; that less than 1% of the NHS budget is spent on children’s mental health; and that CAMHS funding was cut in each of the four years following 2010.

Underfunding and the stripping back of provision in the name of austerity have led to a crisis in our schools, where £2.7 billion of budget cuts, an overriding focus on competition instead of collaboration, and fragmentation and marketisation of education, have left gaping holes in accountability, provision and support. In that environment, it is little wonder that children are not getting the support that they need.

The situation is far worse than that because, as we have already heard, on schools, the Government are acting in a manner that exacerbates poor mental health in children and young people. The Minister has said on the record:

“we do not want children to be under pressure with exams”,

and stated that nothing that his Department has done makes things worse. Yet children are being placed under unbearable pressure because of the high-stakes exam culture fostered by the Government, resulting in feelings of chronic low self-esteem and stress.

In a study commissioned by YoungMinds earlier this year, 82% of teachers said that the focus on exams had become disproportionate to the overall wellbeing of their students. Similar concerns have been raised by the Education Committee, while some headteachers said that their students had attempted suicide over exam pressures. Now that we have evidence, what will the Minister do to change that approach?

For children with special educational needs and disabilities, those feelings of low self-esteem are amplified. I know from my own experience of having dyspraxia that I suffered from low self-esteem and confidence and, as a result, I would often isolate myself. I cannot imagine how much more difficult it must be for the thousands of children with special educational needs who are missing out on support.

Today, the chief inspector of schools revealed the national scandal of 4,000 children with official education, health and care plans receiving literally no support at all. She also raised serious concerns about the children missing from the education system altogether. The Government have created an environment in which, to improve exam results and league table ratings, off-rolling and illegal exclusions are used at whim to such a degree that today, the chief inspector’s report identified a possibly 10,000 children who cannot be accounted for. As the Education Committee’s report noted:

“young people excluded from school or in alternative provision are…more likely to have a social, emotional and mental health need”.

Can the Minister explain what provision—beyond the review of alternative provision that is progress—is being made for those missing children, and when that review will be concluded?

Children now grapple with a range of issues that we in this Chamber did not face at their age, in particular the all-pervasive nature of social media, where bullying, abuse and grooming are no longer confined to the physical space. Some young people cannot escape and have no respite from the harm they endure online. I was pleased that, in the passage of the Children and Social Work Act 2017, the Government bowed to pressure, but I would urge them to get moving on Personal, Social, Health and Economic education. A wealth of evidence suggests that it improves children’s resilience, wellbeing and safety, both online and offline.

In my former career, I saw the heartache and pain that delayed support and help could cause children, their families, their carers, and those who work with them, both in and out of the school environment; teenagers who regularly cut themselves or make attempts on their own lives because they were victims of child sexual exploitation; little boys and girls who had been so severely abused and neglected that they gouged out their own skin and spent their lessons rocking back and forth in an attempt to self-soothe; and children who had fled warzones, who were stoic and motionless in the playground and completely unable to interact with their peers.

As we discuss these matters, teachers, wider school staff, social workers, mental health workers, parents and carers will all be trying their absolute best for those children in the face of the worst cocktail of cuts—coupled with regressive policies—from the Government, right across the board. Those people, and the children and young people that they are fighting for, need to know what the Minister will do to halt that crisis now. I hope that he will not disappoint us all in his response.