Tracey Crouch (Chatham and Aylesford) (Con)
It is an honour to be able to speak in this debate, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) on securing it and the Backbench Business Committee on granting the House time to discuss such an important matter.
I want to start with an admission. When I first became an MP, I did not think that schools should be involved in matters that were beyond the core curriculum, such as mental health. My mind was changed pretty swiftly in two ways. First, my own brush with anxiety and depression in 2012 enlightened me about mental health and cast aside any unconscious prejudice I may have had about who is affected by poor mental wellbeing. The second came through the privilege that we, as Members, have of visiting schools in our constituency and seeing that education is holistic, child-centred and rarely textbook—I ask the House to forgive the pun.
Having had my lightbulb moment, I now feel a responsibility to stand up in this Chamber to advocate for better mental health services for our children. Our child and adolescent mental health services are, I am afraid, overwhelmed, and we could, and perhaps should, have another three-hour debate about that. However, while that remains the case, the system of support for our children needs to be widened, and that is where our schools come in.
Reading the briefings for this debate, I was struck by the statistics of deteriorating mental wellbeing among our children, especially following covid, but the stat that made me feel sick was in the brief provided by YoungMinds, which noted:
“In 2017, suicide was the most common cause of death for both boys and girls aged between 5 and 19”.
That made me want to cry. There are so many heartbreaking stories of children whose lives have been robbed by a disease of which they had no control, but suicide should be preventable, if we have the right awareness, training and essential support services in place. No one, but especially no child, should lose their life to suicide.
Prior to this debate, I sought some thoughts from a handful of schools in my constituency, both primary and secondary, just as a snapshot reflection of need and provision. Anything I say from here onwards is not a criticism of the services that they, as schools, provide—quite the opposite. They are doing their absolute best, despite all the challenges that they face, which I hope to outline in what is left of my speech. It is clear that schools can play a vital role in supporting pupils’ mental health, given that they provide routine and structure to those in their daily care. However, as the need increases, it is clear that the existing provision, which in itself varies, is inadequate in meeting the need from not just a quantitative perspective, but a quality one.
Access to school counsellors may well be an integral part of ensuring that young people have access to support, but only if a school can afford to purchase the school counsellor. Most of my local secondary schools are in some form of academy trust and therefore they are able to pool resources and provide a school counselling service. One trust told me that, despite having a counsellor who works at one secondary each morning and one primary in the afternoon, and another secondary that buys in external support for three days a week, it is nowhere near enough. Another trust told me that it is lucky to have built up a specialist team of experienced professionals to plug the gap when other agencies are not on board. They have a qualified counsellor and a full-time safeguarding lead, but still their young people are crying out for help and, with the greatest respect to those working their socks off in schools, what they absolutely do not need is to be told there is a two-year wait to see CAMHS when a pupil is self-harming or has suicidal thoughts.
It is useful to be able to provide that support where the resources can be pooled to do it, but for a small school with a published admission number of 180, like one of the primary schools I reached out to, the funding is simply not available. If anyone thinks that there is not an acute need in primary schools for wellbeing support services, they are fools. I have heard as many stories of self-harm, suicidal thoughts and depression in our younger age groups as I have in secondary. But if they cannot afford a counsellor or a family liaison officer, they are left to rely on a mental health lead, which is basically a teacher still doing their job and all the things required on a curriculum, but having completed an online learning course. That course qualifies them to deal with mental health conditions as much as my FA level 1 coaching badge qualifies me to manage England.
I applaud the Government focus on this issue in guidance and, of course, the increase in funding for mental health services, but the sad truth is that more is needed. First, we need ringfenced funding. One head said to me that
“if you put additional funding into our budgets it would get lost so whilst I hate this process, look at a ring fenced amount for the next 5 years to allow us to specifically fund mental health provision in schools”.
Secondly, as suggested by one of my local schools, the training of mental health first aid should be mandatory in schools. They legally have to provide physical first aiders; why is it not the same with mental health? The training needs to be funded and not just the preserve of schools that can pay £300 per person and release staff for two days of training.
Thirdly, the Government need to fund the provision of curriculum resources to adequately teach mental health and wellbeing skills. As a strong advocate of the benefit of mindfulness in schools, I believe that the welcome but patchy initiatives that help to support wellbeing while building resilience should become standard, funded practice. It does not have to be mindfulness—one of my schools has a pat-a-dog, which has had a remarkable impact on student wellbeing—but aligning mental health and wellbeing to the curriculum, as we do with physical education, would be enormously positive.
We need to reflect on the role of designated mental health lead. I am afraid my local schools think that although it was designed with good intentions, it will end up like the role of designated safeguarding lead, which is done by a teacher, usually someone on the senior leadership team who, by the nature of their position, already has significant responsibility.
Finally, it is clear that schools are really good places to host hubs for wellbeing, so why not capitalize on that view and ensure that each cluster of schools has access to a mental health worker, a social worker, a school nurse and even a police community support officer, to deliver resource right into the heart of the community, for the most vulnerable within it?