Education relies on pupils’ mental health
Children’s mental health must be a priority when the new school year starts.
The Education Minister has announced his intention that schools will return full-time at the end of this month.
That is a great aspiration but, of course, the health and wellbeing of children is of key significance – a fact that is noted in the Education Restart Programme - and health and wellbeing does not simply mean Covid-19.
Barnardo’s Northern Ireland today released a report based on the thoughts and experiences of local educators ahead of schools’ return.
New Term, New Challenges, New Opportunities says that the Executive should:
- Prioritise mental health and wellbeing in the recovery curriculum
- Increase funding and investment in mental health and wellbeing services in school
- Developed child-centred guidance, in consultation with schools, that must be communicated clearly and directly
One of the key points made by Barnardo’s is that playing catch up with children’s education will be much more difficult – perhaps in some cases impossible – if those children’s mental health is not also supported.
The need to support children’s mental health goes beyond schools themselves, and even beyond the realm of education.
Barnardo’s work cites Health Minister Robin Swann’s Mental Health Action Plan, published in May 2020, which includes a Covid-19 Mental Health Response Plan (developed as an annex to the broader plan), and how work with Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) will cut across both.
Nevertheless, schools will play a vital role in not just education local children, but in helping them to recover from Covid-19 – and adapt to the ongoing circumstances of the pandemic.
The report says: “Schools are about much more than academic attainment, particularly for our most vulnerable children and young people.”
The precise impact of lockdown on children’s education might be difficult to ascertain, certainly at this moment in time. Certainly it will be both significant and negative, in general. However, this is not the only part of the schooling experience that children will have lost.
According to Barnardo’s NI, an “overwhelming majority” of schools say the pandemic impacted on their ability to provide health and wellbeing support to pupils, with the lack of face-to-face contact a key barrier to this.
The charity gathered the thoughts of 167 educational professionals during June. Every single one of them indicated they would welcome additional help to support pupils’ mental health and wellbeing, while over 80% said more funding is needed for such support.
Other findings include:
- Almost 90% of respondents thought that the pandemic was likely to have an impact on the mental health and wellbeing of pupils, and over 70% said mental health and wellbeing (and social and emotional learning) as one of their top priorities when schools return.
- Over 95% said they anticipated changes to the way their school will operate when pupils return.
- Over 90% said Covid-19 has impacted on their school’s ability to support children’s health and wellbeing, with over 80% saying the main cause of this was a lack of face to face contact.
The issue of face-to-face contact, at least, should be helped to a significant degree by the simple fact of schools returning (notwithstanding any issues with what this return actually looks like).
Beyond that, schools and teachers told Barnardo’s that the best way to support them as they get back into the classroom is with clear guidance and direct communications from the Department of Education and the Education Authority.
Per the report: “Whilst we recognise that school closures have impacted upon children’s academic progress, children cannot learn while they are anxious, scared or dealing with trauma.
“The impact of the pandemic and lockdown on the mental health and wellbeing of children cannot be overestimated, and addressing this must be the first priority on the return to school.
“We believe this should reflect a trauma-informed, whole school approach and a range of methods, including formal curriculum, pastoral care and counselling provision…
“Prior to lockdown, school budgets were stretched. The impact of the pandemic and lockdown has exacerbated existing challenges and teachers are now anticipating even greater demand for services.
“It is critical that the Department of Education increases funding and investment in mental health and wellbeing so schools can meet this demand. We believe this should include extending statutory schools-based counselling provision to primary schools…
“The response to the pandemic and return to school is a new challenge for everyone, including teachers and schools.
“Schools recognise the challenge the Department is facing, however there is a need for clear, child-centred, flexible guidance which can help them prepare for re-opening and the challenges they may face.”
Building a future
Covid-19 has impacted every aspect of our society and economy. One common thread in all efforts to deal with the pandemic is that all plans are based on incomplete – and changing – information.
Garry Matthewson Principal of Holy Family Primary School in Derry/Londonderry, said: “We really won’t know the full extent of the damage that has been caused, until we have every child back to school and have the opportunity to re-establish, reconnect and develop those relationships again. That will be the real challenge.
“We know that for some children, this pandemic has been immensely difficult and we are very keen to get them all back to school safely.”
However, while the exact nature and extent of challenges can be difficult to pin down, we are not operating in total darkness.
Schools have had a growing focus on mental health for years and even decades now. They have a growing level of expertise.
Julie Healy, Head of Programmes at Barnardo’s NI, said: “With the new term on the horizon, schools are preparing to continue their learning in a changed environment and we must act on this opportunity to put children’s mental health at the heart of education.
“For many children, school is their lifeline, their safe space, and going back to school will offer vital support. We believe the return to school cannot focus solely on academic achievement, especially given what we know about the importance of mental health and wellbeing to children’s ability to learn.
“Schools cannot take on this challenge alone though, and support and guidance from our Government will be crucial.”
The 2019-20 school year was extraordinary. At short notice, schools were closed for several months due to Covid-19.
Despite a bit more notice, there is every chance that the coming academic year will be more challenging than the last. Society remains in flux – the pandemic is still with us, after all – and it is impossible to know exactly what hurdles are coming down the round, let alone the best ways to clear them.
However, some things are certain: schools will need extra support, and the voices of education staff need to be heard.
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