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Mental health ‘matters more than catching up’ as children return to school

12 March 2021

Focus should be on the well-being and happiness of pupils


Pupils arrive at Thomas Bullock C of E Primary Academy, Shipdham, on Monday

Pupils arrive at Thomas Bullock C of E Primary Academy, Shipdham, on Monday

THE Children’s Society has said that it is “aghast” at government plans to offer children lessons to catch up on their academic learning without more focus and resources to address the mental-health problems caused by the prolonged lockdown.

The society’s chief executive, Mark Russell, said this week that it appeared that there was “no proper strategy or plan in place to meet the scale of the challenge we face”.

The charity is calling for the introduction of an annual measurement of children’s happiness, in line with measurement of adult well-being, so that it would be possible to track the impact that recovery from Covid-19 is having on children’s happiness and well-being.

As many children returned to school on Monday for the first time after nine weeks of lockdown, the Government announced £79 million for children’s mental health — but this was only a fraction of the amount needed to meet the rising demand, the Children’s Society said.

“Frankly, we’re aghast that, after so much vocal concern from the children themselves, parents, and other professionals, that the Government has focused so heavily on children’s academic success,” Mr Russell said.

A survey of professionals working with children had suggested that the latest lockdown had been the toughest for children and young people, he said. “They described children struggling with depression, anxiety, trauma symptoms, and risk of suicide. One practitioner said that, overall, there is a real sense of loss here: loss of autonomy, identity, connection.

“These concerns and fears for our young people are terrifying . . . and yet the Government’s focus is on catch-up. Children aren’t going to succeed if they are deeply unhappy, struggling with mental-health problems developed under lockdown, and feeling immense pressure to catch up.”

He called on the Prime Minister to provide funding for support that would back up his claim that he regarded children’s well-being as important.

“Children need politicians to act swiftly and strategically on their behalf. They need the Government to show more ambition in the rollout of mental-health support teams, provide urgent funding so that school can provide well-being support, and introduce measurement of children’s well-being to ensure they know how children are doing, and the impact [that] recovery measures they are taking are having.”

UNICEF has warned that the mental health of millions of children around the world has been put at risk by national lockdowns, which have disrupted critical mental-health services at a time of rising demand. It said that countries should “dramatically invest” in mental-health services for young people in schools and in their wider communities, as well as in parenting programmes for carers.

Primary schools in England returned in full on Monday, but the return of secondary-school pupils was staggered, to help staff to meet testing requirements. All pupils were expected to be back in school by today.

The return to school was marked by the Revd Rachel Spence, a Baptist pioneer minister in Bath, with a wall of smiley emoji keyrings for children to take on their way into school. She drew a rainbow on the pavement outside school, and a message saying “Thank you children for being heroes.”

She said that she had prayed with families on their way into school, many of whom had mixed emotions. “Our church fence has been a great place of mission and ministry in lockdown: I’ve been able to use it to hang angels on in Advent; solar lights in dark January; to give away Love Hearts sweets on Valentine’s Day, with signs saying ‘Not even Covid can separate us from the love of God’; and now these emoji keyrings.”

Dioceses also sent out messages of thanks to schools as more children returned to the classroom. The Archdeacon of Chichester, the Ven. Luke Irvine-Capel, paid tribute to the “remarkable creativity, resilience, and commitment” shown by school staff during the past year.

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