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Classrooms after Covid: The impact of the pandemic on children's mental health

(Illustrations | Tracy Worrall)

Tom Sasse

Tom Sasse

7 min read

Covid had a profound impact on schools and children – from lost learning to mental health and child development – that we are only beginning to understand, reports Tom Sasse.

Schools did not have an easy pandemic. Closed for months, reopened and closed again – all in chaotic fashion – two years of learning and development were hugely disrupted. Many children struggled to adapt to remote learning and days couped up at home. Exams were cancelled.

The impact on children has been profound. Schools were already struggling to cope with a huge rise in mental health issues – experts say it has now become a crisis. Children have missed key stages in their development. Attendance has dropped; a large chunk simply never came back.

Yet to those working within them, these challenges do not seem to be appreciated. “It’s like Covid never even happened”, says one educational psychologist. “Schools have had Ofsted inspectors coming in here saying ‘we don’t want to hear the C-word… no excuses, it’s back to learning and attainment’”.

Lost learning

Much of the focus has been on how to tackle what’s called “learning loss” – the gap in attainment caused by disrupted learning.

Everyone agrees it’s a big problem. A study by the Education Policy Institute in October 2021 found that “pupils have suffered substantial losses, particularly disadvantaged pupils and those in deprived areas”.

Some pupils were as much as four to six months behind in reading and maths. Catch-up programmes after the first lockdown failed to close the gap – in fact in areas including the East Midlands and the North West it widened.

“[Learning loss] is hard to measure precisely,” says Sam Freedman, an education expert and former adviser to Michael Gove. “But the evidence coming out of lockdown was that it was quite bad and we’ve had no evidence to suggest it has improved.”

Learning loss is hard to measure precisely, but the evidence coming out of lockdown was that it was quite bad.

There was a bunfight last summer when Kevan Collins, appointed by the government to advise on education recovery, resigned in protest over the Treasury’s refusal to fund a £15bn tutoring programme. The £1.4bn offered “betrayed an undervaluing of the importance of education”, he said.

Not everyone agreed with Collins’ focus on tutoring – some teachers worried it would be a blunt instrument. Countries like the US and the Netherlands were much more generous with catch-up funding but also gave schools more scope to decide how to spend it.

But the failure to agree a set of measures means pupils in England ended up with little – which is likely to have long-term consequences. Bad as this, it is not near the top of the list of problems for most schools.

Wall of unmet need

Instead schools are seriously worried about the wider issues that come under ‘pastoral care’ like mental health and child development.

These are all critical – and the evidence shows they have a big impact on learning and attainment – yet rarely prioritised by policy makers. And they have got much worse since the pandemic.

The rise in mental health issues has been steep. Numbers had been steadily increasing for some time, but in the last four years rates of mental illness among children increased by 50%, from one in nine children to one in six, according to NHS survey data.

This covers a wide range of issues but the biggest increase was in emotional problems like depression and anxiety. Around 40% of children say their mental health has deteriorated over that time, while wider problems with sleeping and eating also increased. 

But as the level of need has increased, schools and wider systems including the NHS have not adapted to cope.

“It’s teachers – not GPs, psychologists or mental health professionals – who end up being the main source of mental health support for children,” says Chloe Lowry, a former teacher and researcher who co-authored a recent article describing teachers as “the forgotten health workforce”. “But there’s no system in place for training them, or making sure they know what to do when kids come to them with really serious problems.”

“Schools don’t know what to do,” says the educational psychologist, who largely works in secondary schools. “They are facing this wall of demand from children with more and more complex problems, yet they lack any sort of structure and expertise for managing it, which results in huge unmet need.”

It’s teachers – not GPs, psychologists or mental health professionals – who end up being the main source of mental health support for children.

Lowry points out that current funding only supports one teacher per school to do a day or a half day of training, while successive governments have rejected calls to integrate mental health into teacher training. The government has backed the idea of having mental health support units in schools, but these are only expected to be funded in around a fifth of schools.

The second problem is that even once a child is referred, there is often no one to support them. NHS-run Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (known as CAMHS) have been stripped of capacity in the last decade. Many children end up “bouncing back” without receiving support.

“It makes no sense,” says Lowry. “All the evidence shows you need early intervention to tackle mental health problems, or they can become ingrained, yet we spend about half as much on mental health for every child as we do for every adult”. 

Freedman calls it a “broken system”. “We’ve lost a lot of capacity around support for parents and counselling as well. What is needed is a fundamental overhaul of the way schools – working with the NHS, local authorities and others – are able to deal with child mental health.”

Disrupted development

The pandemic also meant many children missed out on key stages of development which are critical to successful learning. “At one end you have children turning up for reception in nappies, unable to speak with delayed language and limited social skills, because they’ve missed out on nursery and pre-school and at the other you have sixth formers completely unable to manage their time because they never picked up those essential independent learning skills”, says the educational psychologist.

Many children have not come back to school at all – or are attending much less. Last year the Children’s Commissioner reported that there were up to 124,000 persistently absent children – dubbed “ghost kids” in the media – who never came back to school. Around 1.8m children in England missed at least a tenth of the autumn term.

You have children turning up for reception in nappies, unable to speak with delayed language and limited social skills.

The wider picture facing schools – and the department for education – as they grapple with these issues is extremely difficult. 

The cost of living crisis is already having profound impacts: the number children living in poverty is forecast to increase to 5.2 million in 2022, which evidence suggests will have major knock on impacts for education.

Having narrowed earlier in the decade, the attainment gap between richer and poorer pupils is widening again. On top of this there are the effects of long covid on staff and pupils – and an exhausted staff base.

A lack of vision

This all added up to very difficult in-tray for Nadhim Zahawi, who took over the education brief from the hapless Gavin Williamson last September.

On the plus side Zahawi is seen as a safe pair of hands: competent, motivated, capable of getting across the brief. But he’s yet to really make a mark: a recent schools white paper, the first in six years, left many in the sector feeling non-plussed.

“People don’t really know what the Zahawian vision for education is”, says Freedman. “His speeches have been pretty anodyne – he talks about doing the right thing and making things better, but those are things anyone would say”.

Schools don’t just want more money. While they were disappointed by the lack of catch-up funding, Freedman says schools have actually done “relatively well in recent spending rounds compared to other public services, bar health”.

What they want is a coherent vision of how the system will be reformed to tackle the problems they face – including areas like mental health.

And that starts with not pretending that Covid never happened.

Since the publication of this piece, Nadhim Zahawi has been succeeded as education secretary by James Cleverly.

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Read the most recent article written by Tom Sasse - The Parent Trap: Cost of childcare




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