A group of students wearing school uniform sit at their desks in a classroom and write in their textbooks.

Our open letter to Gavin Williamson on supporting the mental health of young people returning to school

We wrote to Gavin Williamson about supporting young people's mental health as they return to school this autumn.

Dear Secretary of State,

I hope that you, your family and your team are well during these difficult times.  

Given the uncertainty that the Covid-19 pandemic has caused over the past few months, I am writing to share recommendations for how to support children and young people’s mental health as they return to school. These recommendations are based on the views of thousands of young people who have taken part in our surveys, on the concerns of parents who call our helpline and of teachers and mental health professionals we work with. 

We share your ambition to get all children and young people back into education in September wherever possible. Having structure, routine and access to trusted adults, in addition to time among peers, is hugely important for many young people’s wellbeing and mental health.  

However, the return to school will be difficult for some children and young people. For those who faced challenges at school prior to the Covid-19 pandemic - including bullying, struggles with academic pressure or anxiety about the school environment – the return to school is likely to cause intense unease.  

Young people who have undergone traumatic experiences during the lockdown may also struggle to adapt to school structures and expectations. Those who have experienced bereavement or unsafe home environments may feel high levels of concern at resuming full-time education, while others are understandably worried about becoming ill and spreading the virus to vulnerable family members. Many young people have also had reduced access to educational materials and teaching time over the past months, which has led to worries about falling behind academically.  

Our research also shows that most young people who were receiving some form of mental health support through schools have had this support disrupted or cancelled during the pandemic. There are likely to be rising levels of need, and rising complexity of need, among these students as they return. 

In these exceptional circumstances, schools need to be able to act quickly, prioritise wellbeing and provide pastoral support to all students who need it. The school reopening guidance suggests that schools should work closely with the NHS and Local Authorities to help students most in need of mental health support; but, in practice, we know that families often faced long waiting times and high thresholds for NHS treatment even before the pandemic. There is a real danger that many young people will fall through the net and not receive support that would enable them to adjust back to school successfully. 

That is why schools need ring-fenced funding to provide or commission wellbeing or mental health support over the coming academic year. That could be through commissioning additional school counselling services, paying for increased hours for key staff across the school, forming partnerships with the voluntary sector, commissioning online support services or providing extra training for staff on specific issues. The needs of every school will be different, and it is important that school leaders have flexibility about how to use this funding. The guidance around the current catch-up premium is strongly focused on academic tuition, which means that school leaders are unlikely to feel able to spend it in this way. We of course welcome all of the funding announced by the Department so far, including yesterday’s announcement of the £8.2 million training scheme.

In conjunction with this, we would also recommend a readjustment period of at least one term, in which wellbeing and mental health are explicit priorities for schools. It is clearly the case that many young people have missed out on months of education, and there are concerns about widening academic inequality as a result. These inequalities could have a long-term impact on young people’s outcomes, opportunities and mental health. However, students will not be able to learn until they are emotionally ready.  

This readjustment period must include measures to enable schools to take a pragmatic and flexible approach to help children back into school. While we understand the need to send a message that children must attend school wherever possible, threatening to fine parents whose children are struggling with anxiety or other mental health needs is counter-productive. We hear on our Parents Helpline from parents whose children are too anxious even to leave the home, and who are in desperate need of advice, support and reassurance. I am sure you will agree that those parents need help rather than the threat of sanctions. Please will you therefore guarantee that, in this extremely difficult time, no parent will be fined on account of their child’s mental health? 

On a longer term basis, we believe that there needs to be a review of attendance codes and attendance policies; the work of charities like Square Peg and Not Fine in School has demonstrated that too many children fall foul of the current system, including children who are being bullied at school or who have mental health problems that have not yet been formally diagnosed. Small changes to the current system could make a big difference. 

I would be delighted to meet with you or a member of your team in the coming weeks to discuss any of the issues outlined in this letter, and how we can work together to ensure that young people are able to access the support they need to return to school in September.  

Yours sincerely,  

Emma Thomas,  

Chief Executive, YoungMinds

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