Danny Bowman is Student Ambassador for The Conservative Education Society and has recently graduated from The University of York.
The education system in the UK has experienced one of the most challenging times in their history, requiring quick and innovative solutions to be implemented to keep our children and young people learning. Since the pandemic started to take hold and lockdown measures were implemented, our education system fell silent, most children and young people left their classrooms, separated themselves from their classmates and went home to find a new learning environment awaited them. Most lessons moved online, as parents and teachers adapted and worked incredibly hard to make sure no knowledge was lost, and students remained engaged in their education. It cannot be underestimated what an unprecedented task this was, with all involved rising to the challenge to continue to deliver high quality learning experiences under the backdrop of a global health crisis.
The impact of the pandemic period on our children and young people is not yet understood, with many research projects examining this area still very much in their infancy. However, one indicator is already starting to produce extremely worrying findings. Several research projects examining the mental health impact of the pandemic are showing a worsening of children and young people’s mental health during the COVID-19 period. Early results from the recent Co-SPACE study by the University of Oxford carried out over a one month period during lockdown found that parents and carers of children aged 4-10 years saw a deterioration in their children’s emotional difficulties. The participating parents and carers reported increased feelings of unhappiness, stress and anxiety amongst their children throughout this period. Another study by the leading youth mental health charity, Young Minds, found that of the 2,036 young people they surveyed with a history of mental illness, 80% of respondents said that the COVID-19 period had made their mental health worse.
Although we must be careful not to make too many assumptions from these two early studies, it is clear from their findings that the COVID-19 period has had some impact on the mental wellbeing of our young people. This could see an increase in the development of poor mental health across school-aged children and more acute symptoms developing in children and young people with pre-existing mental health issues. This is concerning when we consider the pre-pandemic inequalities faced by children and young people with mental health problems within our education system, including lower educational attainment and higher rates of exclusion.
This reality is rightfully concerning, but it also poses us with a massive opportunity to upscale mental health support and awareness in our schools and put the psychological wellbeing of our young people at the forefront of delivering better outcomes post COVID-19.
To successfully achieve better outcomes, I propose the creation of Mental Health Educational Partnerships in every region across England, bringing together knowledge and expertise from the public, private and voluntary sectors to address the likely increase in poor mental health. In practice, this will see schools, local authorities, NHS trusts, charities and social enterprises working together within the Mental Health Educational Partnerships to deliver expert and innovative interventions. These interventions will be tailored to the specific mental health needs of children and young people within each region by utilising the knowledge and expertise of local stakeholders who know their area best.
An example of the types of interventions that could be implemented as part of this new approach include:
- awareness and resilience training for school-aged children provided by local charities and social enterprises;
- enhanced training for teachers to identify and deliver basic early interventions;
- virtual programs delivering useful coping strategies and support for children and young people most at risk;
- the introduction of more flexible governance arrangements enabling increased communication and information sharing between the different stakeholders.
This is not an extensive or inexorable list of interventions and innovations should be encouraged to meet the specific needs of each region.
I believe by implementing this joined-up approach and utilising a range of different stakeholders from the public, private and voluntary sector, we will be able to quickly and efficiently address the needs of children and young people experiencing mental health difficulties. By providing them with the skills and knowledge they need to build resilience, facilitating earlier interventions in our schools through the training of teachers and delivering innovative virtual programs to help children and young people most at risk we can, and we will, deliver better outcomes.
The pandemic has inevitably left many of our children and young people feeling anxious, stressed and unhappy. However, through the implementation of joined-up, localised and innovative partnerships we can provide the mental health education and support young people need and enable a resurgence of opportunity and excellence in classrooms across our country.