School-based Counselling Services Debate

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Department: Department for Education

School-based Counselling Services

Tulip Siddiq Excerpts
Tuesday 9th November 2021

(2 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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Tulip Siddiq Portrait Tulip Siddiq (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab)
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I thank the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) for leading this important debate on school-based counselling. It is a testament to how much we value this topic that on the day the House rises everyone has stayed back to contribute to this debate.

Lots of issues have been raised. The importance of looking at mental health holistically was talked about passionately by my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell). The right hon. Member for Harlow passionately discussed the impact of social media on mental health. We heard repeatedly about the stigma around tackling mental health, including from my right hon. Friend.

Every Member who spoke talked about the impact of covid on young people. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) cited the survey by the charity YoungMinds showing that throughout this pandemic, in the past 18 months, the mental health problems for two thirds of young people have been exacerbated enormously. My right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East also talked about covid-19 and how it has restricted access to mental health services for far too many people. He also made important points about the impact on deaf children, and similar points were made to me when I met a group of headteachers from special needs schools, all of whom talked about the impact covid has had on people with physical disabilities and the mental health impact that moves on from there.

This is a perfect storm, which is likely to have devastating consequences for young people. We are already starting to see this impact as constituency MPs, with an astonishing 96% increase in under-18s being referred to mental health services between spring 2019 and spring 2021, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Yet just two in five children with a diagnosed condition can actually access specialist support. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) talked powerfully about how shocked he was when he heard local children talk about the lack of access to specialist support. I felt similarly when I spoke to a group of young people in my constituency. When we are sitting here in the Chamber, we do not often think about how people struggle to access support. We think it is there and they can access it, but I felt the same as he did when I spoke to people. I was shocked when I read that an estimated one in six children and young people now have a mental health condition—that has increased from one in nine just four years ago. It is also shocking to see that the number of accident and emergency attendances for young people with a psychiatric condition has tripled since then. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central used a statistic that I had also looked up, which was that in 2017 almost a quarter of 17-year-olds had self-harmed. The situation was bad before and it is getting worse, just at the same time as access to mental health services, both in and out of school, has been restricted.

Many of the answers to how we tackle this crisis can relate to school. As well as wider positive impacts that schooling can have, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East talked about ample evidence that school-based counselling can improve wellbeing and attainment. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton South talked about the IPPR report, which I also read and which showed that far fewer state schools are providing on-site counselling than were doing so a decade ago, when nine in 10 schools offered it—the figure is now about half that, according to a recent survey of teachers. When children returned to school after lockdown, just one in five teachers thought that their school’s mental health services were sufficient to support their pupils. We know how much pressure teachers are under, so I hope that the Minister will pay attention to teachers returning to find that not enough mental health support was in place.

My hon. Friends the Members for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) and for York Central both talked about the importance of trained professionals, and the former talked about the missing middle. I know from my experience as a school governor, and we will all know from our experiences in our constituencies, that many teachers and school staff are currently taking on additional responsibilities for supporting pupils’ mental health, on top of their day jobs. They are mostly not trained to do it and neither do they have the resource to do it.

The Labour party believes that there is an alternative. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) talked about the economics of mental health and how it pays off to invest in it, which is what Labour believes. We want to give all schools the additional resources they need to hire specialist counselling and mental health support. That was one of the key commitments of the £15 billion children’s recovery plan to deal with the fallout of the pandemic that Labour announced earlier this year. The Welsh Labour Government have made huge progress on this issue by legislating to put counselling support for 10 to 18-year-olds on a statutory footing.

Under Labour’s costed proposals, every secondary school would have a full-time staff member whose job is to support pupils’ mental health, and primary schools would have access to such specialist support, shared among schools in the local area. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central said, that would mean that problems would be caught and resolved before they could escalate, and teachers and other school staff would be able to focus on their jobs. We know what demanding jobs they have already.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West said, schools have to be part of the solution, but fixing the crisis in children and young people’s mental health cannot just be left to schools, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said. Even with the support and resources that we would provide if we were in government, we would have to look at the support provided by CAMHS and other NHS services as well, and I am afraid that the situation in that respect is even worse. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham talked about early intervention; the truth is that waiting lists for mental health support are currently unacceptably long, thereby allowing problems to escalate well before young people can be seen by a specialist. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central also made that point.

I say again that there is an alternative. Labour has pledged to implement a new national NHS target that guarantees mental health support within a month, backed up by our plan to recruit 12,000 mental health professionals and to introduce a lock to ensure that mental health spending always rises when NHS funding is increased.

Lots of people talked about the local organisations that are so important in our areas. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham talked about Rollercoaster and my hon. Friend the Member for York Central talked about the Island. In both Camden and Brent in my constituency, several organisations provide support for young people. We in the Labour party want to make sure that every community has an open-access mental health hub for children and young people. Having visible, easy-to-find, drop-in mental health support centres is so important and complements the counselling support offered in schools, because the hubs ensure that those who are marginalised or feel unable to come forward at school can get the support they need.

There is a crisis of children and young people’s mental health in this country that we cannot ignore. The crisis is deepening as a result of the pandemic, as we heard over and over again, and the mental health support that is available in and out of school is not sufficient to tackle it. Those facts have come through loudly and clearly in this important debate. The situation in far too many schools does not match the ambition that parents, teachers and we in the Labour have for our children, mainly because of the huge pressures on school budgets following real-terms cuts of 9% in the past decade. We really need a proper plan from the Government to address that.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington advocated well for his constituent and his wife, but he also spoke passionately about a comprehensive strategy, which is what I urge the Minister to produce. It is time for change. We want the Minister to look at what Labour proposes on in-school counselling and a one-month support guarantee. We want mental health workforce expansion, community hubs and much else. The wellbeing, learning and prospects of an entire generation could be transformed by the bold step change in mental health support that we are calling for. I hope the Minister will listen to all the voices in the House that have made their points so passionately today.