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Children are facing a ‘double hit’ from pandemic

University of Essex

4 min read Partner content

Children are experiencing a 'double hit' from the pandemic, as school disruption affects learning and impacts mental health, according to new research.

“Young people are facing a double hit to their educational prospects. First, disruption to schooling caused by the pandemic has directly impacted on learning. Second, the pandemic has adversely affected many young peoples’ mental health.”

These are the words of Neil Smith, former Head of Analysis at the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), as he describes his work looking at the effects of mental health at ages 11-14 on GCSE grades at 16.

The story starts in 2017, when the first national survey of children and young people’s mental health in over a decade revealed that one in seven young people aged 11-16 has a mental health disorder serious enough to affect their day-to-day lives. These are crucial years in children’s educational lives, as they prepare for exams which can shape their future.

Neil (now at the Office for National Statistics) and his colleagues wanted to know more, but found little research on what someone’s state of mind at this stage might mean for their life chances later. They turned to a data set called Understanding Society – the UK Household Longitudinal Study. Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, the Study follows the lives of thousands of people around the UK, year after year, gathering information about how we live.

Children aged 10-15 in the households that take part fill in a youth survey, which measures their mental health with the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ), where higher scores indicate poorer mental health. Many respondents allow their responses to be linked to the National Pupil Database, so researchers can see who later met the national educational benchmark of 5 A*-C GCSE grades including English and Maths. The wealth of data in Understanding Society meant the research could also take other factors like family income, parental relationships and health into account.

They found that a one-point increase in young people’s SDQ score on at 11-14 was equivalent to dropping one grade at GCSE. Children who had poor mental health at secondary school were three times as likely not to pass five GCSEs.

All this was happening before Covid, and since the onset of the pandemic, other research has shown disruption to schools hitting young people’s mental health further. Birgitta Rabe, Professor of Economics at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, says: “The effects of school closures on children’s wellbeing are large, and they may take some time to mend.”

Birgitta’s research with colleagues at the Universities of Surrey and Birmingham was funded by the Nuffield Foundation. They used Understanding Society’s special COVID-19 Survey which ran between April 2020 and September 2021. Using the new data, they found “a significant rise in emotional and behavioural difficulties among primary school children following the 2020 spring and summer term school closures, a rise that was greater for the children who were not prioritised to return to school for seven weeks before the summer holiday”.

In this age group, parents fill in the SDQ for their children, and the results show an increase in children’s behavioural and emotional difficulties during the pandemic – equivalent to around 14% above the average pre-pandemic level of difficulties. Children that weren’t prioritised to go back to school in June 2020 had considerably higher levels of behavioural and emotional difficulty than those who were prioritised.

“The return to school in September did not undo all of this damage.”, Birgitta says, “We found wellbeing to be higher in September 2020 than July 2020, but still much lower than pre-pandemic levels – and the gap in wellbeing between children who were and were not prioritised to return to school during the summer term had not closed. This suggests that any corresponding deterioration in wellbeing as a result of the school closures in early 2021 is likely to persist.”

Neil says “It’s likely those whose mental health was affected the most by the pandemic will face greater difficulties in making up for learning time that’s been lost”.

So what can be done? Birgitta points out that the Government has committed over £3 billion to help children catch up on what they have missed, but adds: “Given the strong links between children’s mental health and educational attainment, focusing on mental health will be an important part of this catch-up.”

To find out more about Understanding Society, and how you can use our data, contact the Policy and Partnerships Unit.


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