Published on
25 May 2020

The Government could miss a once in a generation opportunity to put mental health and wellbeing at the heart of the education system if it does not make changes when schools reopen their gates.

This is the warning from Barnardo’s in its report Time for a Clean Slate: Children’s Mental Health at the Heart of Education, which is released today (May 25).

The UK’s largest children’s charity works in schools across the country supporting pupils with their emotional health and wellbeing and says the Government must realise it cannot make them return to the ‘business as usual’ from the pre-pandemic days.

This is because the Covid-19 outbreak, as well as side effects of the measures to contain it, have exposed the country’s children and young people to an unprecedented level of trauma, loss and adversity. 

Some children, who were already extremely vulnerable will have been badly affected. 

For example, children and young people living in lockdown or socially isolating in challenging and unsafe home environments may have lost their ‘safe space’ at school. Some children and young people will have experienced domestic abuse, poverty or child abuse for the first time. 

Others will be grieving for loved ones, and we know the virus has disproportionately affected BAME communities.

Some children will be fearful of catching the virus and others will be experiencing separation anxiety.

As schools start to return, Barnardo’s says they should be allowed to use at least a term as a ‘readjustment period’ where they can be flexible with the curriculum, so they can work through the emotional effects of the pandemic.

This would enable teachers to help their pupils reintegrate into the school environment, re-socialise with their friends, and change the structure of the day so there is more of a focus on pastoral care, play, creative outlets and outdoor activities.

The call comes as the results of a survey, undertaken by Barnardo’s for the report, revealed 88% of school staff said the pandemic is likely to have an effect on the mental health and wellbeing of their pupils.

And 26% said they did not feel confident they had the tools, skills or resources to support their pupils in this way.

Barnardo’s would also like to see the Government act on the proposal by the chairman of the Education Select Committee, Robert Halfon, to introduce a catch up pupil premium for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged pupils.

But this funding should not just be about ‘catching up’ academically and schools should be able to use it flexibly to support these pupils in a holistic way, including for support with mental health and wellbeing. 

And the UK’s leading children’s charity is calling on the Government to go much further than this in the longer term.

It wants the Government to seize this opportunity to bring about a sea change in the education system - to prioritise child welfare and wellbeing, so that it is on a par with academic achievement. 

With the current system weighing heavily on the side of academic performance, Barnardo’s is concerned that schools are finding it difficult to meet the needs of the most vulnerable pupils and to prioritise welfare and wellbeing. 

This echoes the views of the school staff surveyed, with more than two thirds (67%) saying they want to see changes in the curriculum structure and exams process.

Barnardo’s Chief Executive Javed Khan said: “When it comes to this pandemic, we are all in the same storm, but we are not in the same boat.

“We know children who were already vulnerable before the crisis have been badly affected, and with families now under increasing financial and emotional pressure, more children are now living in poverty and at risk of abuse. Many more are struggling with anxiety, depression and other mental health problems, now largely hidden from the view of teachers and professionals.  

“When children return to school, there must be additional resource available to help overcome not just the ‘attainment gap’ but also the  ‘trauma gap’ faced by vulnerable pupils.  

“The Government should also take this once in a generation opportunity to rebalance the school system, recognising that children rely on school to keep them safe and well, just as much as they need it to pass exams. 

“We urge the Government to work with schools, local authorities, the NHS and charities to place wellbeing at the heart of the curriculum and school culture, so that every child has the support they need to thrive.” 

Notes to editors

As part of the research for the report, Barnardo’s surveyed 112 members of staff in schools across primary (76%), secondary (11%) and special educational needs and disabilities (9%) provision and ‘other’ (4%). 

The survey was live for the first two weeks of May and was open to any member of staff working in schools. We received responses from teachers (54%), Headteachers or Deputy Headteachers (26%), Teaching Assistants (9%), school counsellors (3%), special educational needs coordinators (2%) and ‘other’ (6%).  

This report was written in collaboration with Barnardo’s young people Louise and Rebecca who gathered insights from their peers (aged 15 – 19) about how schools can support pupils on their return.

Appendix 1

Staff from schools across England were surveyed for the report and spoke about their concerns.

(Where a quote is marked as being by headteacher/ deputy headteacher the respondent has indicated they work as either of these positions.)

A primary school headteacher/ deputy headteacher said: “All of the meaningful day-to-day services have been on hold. For the most vulnerable children it is often attachment and trust that need to be built with a child. The sudden detachment will take a long time to repair.“

A primary school teacher said: “Not having the routine and safety of school for such a long time will inevitably impact their health and well being, especially those who come from very disadvantaged backgrounds. Not being able to see their friends and family will have impacted them too.” 

A headteacher/ deputy head from a special school commented: “It will take time to build up to 25 hrs of learning - many pupils will need to rebuild relationships and trust. The curriculum will need to be adapted to concentrate on emotional wellbeing first rather than just progress academically.”

And a headteacher/ deputy head from a primary school added: “[There needs to be] change or freedom in the curriculum to support our children's mental health and wellbeing rather than greater emphasis on narrowing the gap or catching up on teaching. Children cannot learn if they are not emotionally stable or ready to learn.” 

Appendix 2

Teenagers’ top tips for schools

Barnardo’s young people, Louise and Rebecca, spoke to teenagers aged 15 - 19 about how schools can support children and young people on their return:

  1. Be clear with children and young people about what will happen when they return to school and listen to their concerns.
  2. Adopt a phased approach to returning to school, so that children and young people are not overwhelmed with a sudden change in their routine.
  3. Talk to them about the impact the coronavirus outbreak has had and use the school’s platforms and networks to raise awareness of the issues affecting them.
  4. Tell them where they can access support services.
  5. Facilitate social events for them, so they can rebuild their friendships and support each other.
  6. For those who are transitioning to a new school or college give opportunities to have “closure”*. For example, hold leaving events like proms, even if they have to be delayed.
  7. Ensure that there is a place in school where they can access one-to-one support and raise their concerns. 
  8. Work with local partners to support them to access specialist mental health support when they need it.
  9. Think about their whole family and consider the support the school can provide to families who may be struggling, financially or otherwise.
  10. Know which pupils are vulnerable** and keep in contact with them to ensure they can get the support they need.

*I.e. Recognising the psychological importance of graduation ceremonies

**I.e. coping with multiple disadvantages and/or lacking adequate protection