Pupil Mental Health, Well-being and Development Debate

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Department: Department for Education

Pupil Mental Health, Well-being and Development

Baroness Tyler of Enfield Excerpts
Thursday 22nd February 2024

(1 month, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Tyler of Enfield Portrait Baroness Tyler of Enfield (LD)
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My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, on securing this debate. We have had a number of debates on children’s mental health in recent times, and the role of school always features, but today’s debate challenges us to think about the wider role of schools in relation to children’s well-being and confronts the perennial question of the purpose of education. Is it simply about academic attainment and preparation for the world of work? Is it also about preparing young people more widely for adulthood, including how they fulfil their potential in all spheres of life, become full citizens in our society and build healthy relationships? Is it also about providing the skills to build their personal resilience and emotional well-being to help deal with the knocks that life inevitably brings?

The answer, of course, is a combination of those things, but not everyone will agree on the precise mix. It might be trite to say that growing up in the modern world feels more complicated, with a whole new range of pitfalls to navigate, but I think it is true. It is clear that young people face increasing pressures from the academic environment, the growing influence of social media and the online world, and the lasting impact of the pandemic. I was struck by some research conducted for the Mental Health Foundation which found that the advent of technology, while offering unprecedented connectivity, also introduces new stressors, as individuals battle with the constant pressure to meet online standards and portray an idealised version of their lives.

It is worth reminding ourselves that The Good Childhood Report 2023, which has already been referred to, focused on children and young people’s experiences of school. Frankly, it did not make for comfortable reading, with more children and young people unhappy with school than with the other nine aspects of life they were asked about. Primary and secondary schools have an important role to play and have great potential to be a protective factor for mental health, but sadly that is not how too many young people feel about school. In a recent survey by Young Minds of more than 14,000 young people, only 3% said educational settings were a positive influence on their mental health, while 59% said that school or college had affected them negatively in some way. What is going on?

As we have heard already today, many schools have become heavily focused on exam results, and pressure to do well in exams can be overwhelming for some young people. Fundamentally, I believe that a whole-school approach is needed which creates a school culture and environment that has well-being at the core, where mental health and well-being are promoted and protected and which includes all pupils, students, teachers and staff members. In my experience, this happens only when the leadership of the school is actively engaged in and championing this work. It means ensuring that every adult who interacts with a child has the knowledge, understanding and wherewithal to support the child. Of course, parents and carers play a key role in teaching children and young people how to understand and manage their feelings as they grow up, and I would like to see more support in this area.

We know that staff in school are often the first point of contact for a young person struggling with their mental health; hence, they need to be provided with knowledge and understanding around behaviour and mental health and how to identify when a child is struggling. An independent study from NatCen on adolescent mental health and educational attainment observed a strong association between mental health difficulties between the ages of 11 and 14 and later academic attainment at age 16. The study found that children experiencing poor mental health are three times less likely than their peers to pass five GSCEs. I am sure that most schools understand this link, but it seems crucial that mental health issues are not viewed as yet another problem issue that they are forced to deal with. It is about creating the very foundations for learning and academic success.

Furthermore, exclusion from school is strongly related to poor mental health in children and young people, so we should be concerned that the rates of exclusion from school have increased in the last five years. I was interested to read in a recent study that, on average, children who had experienced at least one fixed-period exclusion in the year before attending counselling lost significantly fewer school sessions to exclusion in the year when they had counselling. That was from Place2Be, a charity that operates in many schools, providing drop-in sessions, family work and one-to-one counselling for those with more complex issues. Its analysis of pupils receiving counselling indicates that consistently poor mental health over time was associated with higher levels of persistent absence, which we heard about earlier, whereas improving or consistently good mental health was often associated with lower levels of persistent absence. Its findings also suggest that strengthening children’s engagement with and enjoyment of school over time was associated with reduced persistent absence. The same can be said about bullying but I do not have time to go into that now.

Preventing mental health problems arising in the first place is key. When support is available in schools in a non-stigmatising format, young people benefit. Young people themselves have talked about the need for safe spaces at school and safe conversations. By intervening early, building resilience and nurturing a positive understanding of emotions and well-being, we can ensure that young people learn lifelong skills so that their problems do not grow with them. That can be done through whole-class work, lessons and the curriculum. Critically, it needs to start at primary school age, to which we do not give enough attention.

Finally, I turn to mental health support teams. We have heard quite a bit about them and I have always supported them but, alongside many others, I have argued that the rollout should have proceeded at a much faster pace. As we have heard, on the current plans there is funding to achieve only 50% coverage of schools by 2025, leaving over half of schools, particularly primary schools, uncovered, and pupils without the support they need. To be clear, MHSTs are a welcome and important part of the jigsaw of mental health support, but they go only so far.

I will have a lot more to say on the subject next Friday at the Second Reading of my Private Member’s Bill, particularly my concern about children urgently needing mental health support who meet neither the mental health support teams’ “mild to moderate” criteria nor the criteria of specialist CAMHS support, with its very high access thresholds and extremely long waiting lists. Noble Lords should watch this space.