Covid risks hardwiring in disadvantage for our most vulnerable young people
A growing number of disadvantaged learners are struggling to manage their mental health in lockdown | PA Images
The young people we support are already disproportionately disadvantaged, outside of mainstream education. The pandemic’s impact on their mental health must be a wake-up call
As shocking as it is, there are a significant number of young people in our society who are disproportionately disadvantaged from the start, and mainstream education system doesn’t always meet their needs. Family breakdown, health or financial inequality, special educational needs, school exclusion – the list of why that might be so is extensive. But the consequences can be long-lasting: poor educational outcomes, no qualifications, no jobs.
I run an education centre for in Spalding, Lincolnshire, designed specifically to ensure these young people get the personalised support they need. Nacro’s national network of further education and skills centres provide high quality learning and engagement for young people aged 16-18 who have struggled at school and who are looking for a more personalised and local programme to support progression to employment, further or higher education or training.
With future prospects well and truly on the line for these young people, the scenarios we’re now seeing in lockdown should be a wake-up call for us all.
Increased incidence of poor mental health is showing up across our further education centres and in our national safeguarding data
Increased incidence of poor mental health is showing up across our further education centres and in our national safeguarding data. A growing number of our learners are struggling to manage their emotions, experiencing low mood, and have been engaged in self-harm and even had suicidal thoughts.
The isolation brought about by the pandemic, the uncertainty, and the lack of in-person contact with teachers is holding them back from effectively managing their mental wellbeing. Add to that, the strain on households facing financial problems through lack of employment or illness, or lack of appropriate technology, and it’s clear that our young people are feeling the fall-out at every turn.
In the more serious cases, some of our learners are in the middle of family relationship breakdowns, often due to being confined to the house, and some have experienced domestic abuse. This comes at a time when as a profession we were making real headway with young men in particular, who were becoming more open about the mental health challenges they faced, such as sleeping problems, anxiety, and self-harm.
One of our students, who I’ll call Oliver, came to me recently. He’d been hard to engage for some weeks. It turned out that due to the restrictions of not being able to meet up with friends or attending his local gym as a way of managing his mental wellbeing, he had turned to self-harm in his frustration and had at one point had experienced suicidal thoughts.
We need to support our young people to access their education as well as helping them to be mindful of their mental health. A funded further education digital strategy from government would help. Between a third and a half of children and young people lack the technology and data they need to effectively pursue their studies at home, according to the Children’s Commissioner.
These are crucial years for our young people to be able to develop their social and emotional skills, and in order to break down barriers to learning. Yet due to the changes in our daily lives, the impact is already profound. We can’t allow our learners’ existing disadvantage to become hard-wired into their future prospects.
Zoe Whitmore is manager at Nacro Education Centre, Spalding