Children and Mental Health Services — [Mark Pritchard in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:02 pm on 16th July 2019.

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Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay 3:02 pm, 16th July 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend Andrew Griffiths on securing this debate. I concur very much with all that he said in his opening speech.

Because we have only a small amount of time, I want to address one specific issue that has been brought to my attention. We all agree that we have a growing challenge with mental health conditions among young people across the country. It is right to acknowledge that the Government recognise that and are acting. We are grateful in Cornwall that, as I speak, a residential unit for children with mental health conditions is being built, after many years of not having a residential unit and our children having to be sent all over the country to be cared for. That unit will be open soon, which is very welcome.

I am particularly concerned about the amount of pressure we are putting on our schoolteachers when it comes to caring for children with mental health conditions. We are expecting more and more of teachers in that regard when it is not their role or responsibility. I am concerned about the impact that is having on our teachers.

I am also concerned about another aspect of education, which is authorised absence. I know that is not the Minister’s direct responsibility, but I hope she will take the remarks on board and feed them back to the Department for Education. Many parents are coming to me saying that they are struggling to get the school to support them as a family when they need to take their children out of school because of mental health concerns and conditions, including to attend appointments with CAMHS or other organisations.

In one case, the school was refusing to recognise absence from a particular child who was suffering from a mental health condition until that condition had been formally diagnosed by CAMHS. As we have heard today, it can take many months—I have heard it is up to 18 months—to get a diagnosis from CAMHS. The school was sending warning letters home to the parents about the amount of time the child was having away from school and threatening to take legal action against them. All that was doing was exacerbating the problem and putting more pressure, more stress and more distress on the family at an already difficult time.

Through the Minister, I appeal to the Department for Education that we need our teachers, and our headteachers in particular, to be more understanding and more compassionate. They are being driven by a heavy-handed approach from Ofsted in meeting attendance targets. It seems that those targets, above all else, are the most important thing for schools. No recognition or allowance is given for the real challenges many families face when they have a child who is suffering with mental health conditions and is therefore unable to attend school regularly. They are being put under huge pressure.

Many children are aware of what is going on, and I am concerned that they are encouraged to bury the issue and go to school because they do not want the pressure put on their parents, rather than opening up and getting the help and support they need. We need to ensure that schools work with parents and families when they have a child facing these issues. They should not add to the problems or the pressure that the family is under. I ask the Minister to take that on board. We can do better in getting schools to recognise the concerns and conditions that many families find themselves facing and in working with families, rather than exacerbating the problem.