Sebastian Rees is a researcher at Reform.
This Easter weekend feels a world away from the last year’s. We were still weeks from being able to socialise indoors, sit in a restaurant or do some ‘non-essential’ shopping. This weekend, families and friends will be celebrating together in the sunshine, rather than layering up to freeze in the local park with no more than 5 other people. What a difference a year makes.
Yet while the restrictions have been lifted, the after-effects of the pandemic continue to reverberate. Nowhere is that more the case than among young people. With schools closed, social restrictions in place, and access to support limited, the last two years have been devastating for children and teenagers.
Before the pandemic, one in nine young people had a probable mental health condition. That number has now jumped to one in six. Getting to grips with this distressing situation has to be a priority if the Government is serious about boosting education recovery, levelling up the country, and avoiding long-term costs to taxpayers.
The default when it comes to health is to call for more investment in NHS services. And ensuring CAMHS – Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services – has the resources it needs is vital. But if we’ve learnt anything from the constant injections of cash into the NHS, it’s that you can’t treat your way out of a crisis.
To the Government’s credit, they’ve recognised the need to move upstream – to support young people before complex treatment is necessary. This is better for them, and, unsurprisingly, better for taxpayers.
Schools have been the focus for achieving this since 2017, and it’s an approach that makes perfect sense. Schools are in constant contact with almost every young person; they are the place we make lifelong friends and develop the skills that prepare us for adulthood.
However, while the intention is right, the execution is falling short. In our latest report, ‘A revolution in mindset’, we argue that much more needs to be done to realise the potential of schools as enablers of good mental health.
To start with, schools need the tools to assess need. Currently, most schools are relying on ad hoc surveys or teachers picking up behavioural indicators. The problem with this is that many young people, particularly girls, internalise need. Experts told us this was particularly the case for pupils at risk of developing eating disorders, which have soared over the last decade. This means young people falling through the cracks, or identification coming too late.
Schools need a standardised survey to assess pupil wellbeing and identify poor mental health, something the Department for Education (DfE) should work with the Department for Health and Social Care to develop. They also need the tools to support those young people that need help.
Since 2019, the Government has been rolling out NHS funded Mental Health Support Teams (MHSTs) to schools across England. These school-based teams provide talking therapies to young people in one-on-one and group sessions. This is delivered by qualified mental health practitioners who tend to cover several schools in an area. In theory this is a great idea, and we spoke to teachers from around the country who felt it was making a real difference, but in practice we really don’t know if it is.
Despite putting nearly £400 million into this programme, we don’t have any outcomes data to know whether MHSTs are helping pupils recover. The Chancellor said in his Autumn Budget that every pound must be “spent well”. The DfE should take heed and urgently evaluate whether MHSTs are delivering value for money. And if it is found to work, the Government needs a much more ambitious roll out – by 2023 just 35 per cent of pupils will have access to an MHST.
But we can, and must, take even earlier steps to support young people’s mental health. PSHE provides a huge opportunity, but in its current form just isn’t working. An Ofsted report from last year found that young people felt that PSHE lessons were “not relevant to the reality of their lives”.
Or to put it another way, for too many pupils it is seen as a waste of time, when in fact it should be a key part of the curriculum equipping them with core life skills – from emotional regulation to conflict resolution. Or as Baroness Nicky Morgan puts it in her foreword to our report, it should put “character education” centre stage. This is exactly what happens in the Netherlands through the Skills for Life programme, which has been shown to significantly improve students’ self-efficacy.
Such an approach would kill two birds with one stone: young people would be better able to cope with adversity, and would also develop the valuable soft skills that so many employers report are lacking. Teacher training should be upgraded to include these new PHSE skills.
As we enjoy our restrictions-free Easter, and continue to move on from the pandemic, we must not forget the huge toll it has taken on young people’s mental health. The Government is right that schools hold the key to addressing this crisis, but without greater ambition, investment and reform it will come up short. It’s the least we can do for a generation of young people whose lives have been on hold.