The results of Ofsted’s visits to schools last term shows the broad range of impacts that the Covid-19 pandemic is having on children and young people. While headteachers report that some children have coped well with the disruption to their education and family lives, others have talked about seeing increases in undesirable behaviour and a deterioration in pupils’ mental and physical health.
Ofsted inspectors carried out nearly 2,000 visits to education and social care providers last term. Inspectors heard that repeated absences due to Covid-19 outbreaks have resulted in pupils losing additional time in school on top of the disruptions of the previous academic year. Many children are thought to be at least six months behind where they should be for attainment. And for a significant number of pupils, repeated periods of self-isolation have eroded the progress they have been able to make since September. Of course, since Ofsted’s report was published in December, schools have once again closed to most pupils as part of the most recent lockdown restrictions.
Many primary school leaders reported that children were finding it difficult to focus on their schoolwork and that they had ‘lost some of their independence and resilience’ and were ‘looking to adults for instruction and support more than they usually would.’ Social skills were also a concern for primary pupils, with school leaders saying they were seeing more instances of younger children, in particular, not coping well with minor setbacks or struggling to co-operate with other children. A few headteachers said children’s personal and social development was lagging behind where it would usually be.
Secondary school headteachers reported that some pupils were finding it hard to maintain good behaviour, especially those who had behavioural difficulties before the pandemic. Some also noted that there had been an increase in extreme poor behaviour with instances of aggression, fighting and assaults on staff, some of which had resulted in permanent exclusion.
All age groups had seen an increase in anxiety levels, with many children picking up on their parents’ worries. Reasons for pupils’ anxiety were related to various aspects of the pandemic: some were anxious about catching the virus and infecting their households, while some were anxious about having to self-isolate and being unable to come into school. Leaders reported that pupils in Years 11, 12 and 13 were particularly anxious about the uncertainty of exams. Several secondary school leaders observed an increase in eating disorders among both girls and boys. A few also noted higher numbers of pupils self-harming, both in primary and secondary schools. Many leaders were concerned about the social and emotional impact that the time away from school had had on their pupils with SEND.
This overall increase in mental health problems in children and young people was echoed by Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, who, in a recent blog, wrote that, in 2017, one in nine children were found to have a mental health disorder. This had jumped to one in six by last summer, showing the clear need for additional funding, and commitment, from the Government.
In November’s Spending Review, it was announced that around £500million would be spent on mental health initiatives for adults and children. At Thrive, we would like to see a specific commitment to funding services for children and young people as part of this investment and, in the longer term, we believe mental health and wellbeing should be prioritised as a key educational goal. In the 25 years that we have been training teachers and other professionals to support children and young people’s wellbeing in order to prevent mental health issues, we have seen, time and again, that once a child’s mental and emotional needs are met, they are ready to engage with learning and can then meet, or even exceed, attainment targets. But while these needs are not met, they will often revert to unwanted behaviour which can result in sanctions for the children and young people themselves and be difficult and time consuming for teachers to manage.
Viv Trask-Hall, Head of Innovation in Education and Principal Trainer at Thrive, said: “We must make sure all this talk about the mental health of children and young people is followed through, and that the money promised by Government is delivered. There is a huge opportunity to actually focus on promoting resilience in education – not just to ensure that young people are able to bounce back from this latest lockdown, but giving them the skills and confidence to adapt to whatever challenges they are presented with, building coping strategies to aid mental health and wellbeing. Their learning environment is constantly changing – one minute in school with their peers, next at home with varying experiences of online learning. As these turbulent times settle we need to grasp the opportunity to alter our education system, to focus on building resilience and developing intrinsic motivation – learners wanting to do the best they can for themselves.”