Pupil Mental Health, Well-being and Development

By Lord Wei of Shoreditch on 22 January 2024
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My Lords, I extend my gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for initiating this vital debate, and declare my interests as a parent of home-educated and state-educated children and as a board member of an organisation committed to providing private education.

We are at a critical juncture, where the mental health challenges facing our youth have intensified—notably since the pandemic, as others have pointed out. Just this month, the Royal College of Psychiatrists said that there had been a 53% increase in the number of children in mental health crisis over the last four years. This situation is exacerbated by a schooling environment in which most GCSEs are now tested in exams only. This, coupled with limited resources, has severely hampered schools’ ability to support effectively those with neurodiversity and SEND, as well as other pupils struggling generally with mental health challenges.

It is heartening to see the Government’s introduction of mental health support teams and the provision of funding for training leads. This is a commendable step towards embedding mental health support within our educational framework. However, the reach of these initiatives needs expansion, given that eventually it will still only be available to half of all schools, and all schools are still limited in the degree that they can help children with particularly acute needs. It is essential that this support becomes a staple across all schools, ensuring that no child is left without the necessary mental health resources that they need at whatever intensity of need they have. I of course pay tribute to the many schools and teachers who do such a great job in spite of all this, helping where they can.

I will now focus my remarks on the school pathways for parents and children dealing with mental health episodes which, from those I have spoken to and interacted with, are too often confusing, complex and traumatic. This comes on top of the high levels of stress families feel because of the issues they have to deal with and, sometimes, the bullying that accompanies them. The pathways need clarification and simplification; they need to become more collaborative rather than confrontational, offering support rather than exacerbating stress and anxiety.

Too often, parents find that the imperative schools have to keep children in school and perform in and for exams, and to manage limited resources and attention to get the bulk of their pupils moving forwards, conflicts with the individualised and tailored attention and support needed by pupils facing mental health challenges. In a number of cases, parents decide to remove their children from a school environment which is not sufficiently supportive, which the child refuses to go to or in which they face bullying.

At this point, the parents face a number of hurdles: attempts can often be made to keep the child in school attendance, even if it might not be in the child’s best interests or aid their well-being, so that the school, trust and local authority can maintain their targets, sometimes with the threat of prosecution or fines. The family can often feel mistreated, like criminals.

I find that, in such scenarios, many families currently see home education as their only escape from such a system that does not adequately cater to their needs. It seems to them the only legal way to move forwards without harassment, short of moving house to another locality. This choice, often made in desperation, should prompt us to reflect on how we can make even more of our schools more neuro-inclusive and supportive environments, rather than ones that have to enforce rules that may not apply or be particularly helpful in such circumstances.

I am also saddened that, rather than dealing with the causes of such absences and the growth of home education as a result of this crisis, the Government and other stakeholders are considering implementing registers for out-of-school children. This would add further stress to families who have chosen to go down that route. It would be wiser to sort out the lack of support and empathy when families have to endure mental health and special needs challenges in schools, signpost multiple paths including, but not just, home education to provide temporary respite and formulate a plan, which may or may not involve the former school, and provide advice, support and training if home education is the chosen path, rather than to create a situation where those who have taken their children out of school are automatically assumed to be criminal or are suspected of neglect or any number of crimes. For many, their only desire is ultimately to see their child well, succeed and be restored.

In closing, I will pose a number of critical questions to the Minister. First, will there be an investigation into the reliance on home education as the only legitimate escape route for parents seeking to protect their children from a system that can sometimes feel to them adversarial, and work done to clarify the pathways out of an unsustainable school environment, so that they are more supportive and do not suspect the parents or child as a first resort?

Secondly, in light of the recent trends in school attendance and the unique challenges post Covid—they look like a result of Covid at the moment, given that attendance is now rising again—is there a plan for an emergency support package specifically targeted at the student cohorts most affected from 2020 onwards?

Thirdly, what support is planned for these children and families with mental health challenges and additional needs who are out of formal school contexts, given that they sometimes need help, either when they are being home-educated or are in an in-between situation, at home or in another non-school context? Will funding be released for families to access trained support from either local authorities or trusted charities without being pursued for absences in those situations?

Our commitment to the mental health and well-being of our pupils is a testament to our dedication to their future and the future of our society. Let us ensure that our actions reflect this commitment by fostering an environment where every child facing mental health challenges feels supported, understood and valued, whether formally in school or not.

Source: Hansard