School children’s grades and mental wellbeing are suffering, NHS bosses have warned, as waiting lists for community health services bulge with almost 230,000 youngsters.
Official figures show the number of under-18s in line for – among other things – essential speech and language therapy, autism checks and paediatric appointments has grown by 10 per cent in just five months.
About 13,500 of them have been stuck on waiting lists for more than a year, prompting calls for the government to pledge more money for early intervention services.
It comes after Schools Week revealed how a collapse in state services brought on by austerity has left schools to pick up the pieces.
Most school staff are working at least four extra hours a week to provide additional support to pupils, a report earlier this month found. It prompted warnings staff are now the “de facto and unofficial branch of social and healthcare services”.
Waits ‘completely unacceptable’
NHS Confederation chief executive Matthew Taylor said community healthcare is “now under extraordinary pressure”.
“Expecting a child and their family to have to wait – sometimes for years – for diagnosis, let alone treatment, is completely unacceptable. No one should endure waits this long, let alone a child whose development and maturity could be severely delayed as a result.”
NHS data shows 206,504 children and young people were languishing on community healthcare waiting lists in October. But latest stats revealed the number leapt by about 21,000 by the end of March.
In all, 13,470 youngsters have been waiting more than 12 months, while a further 67,800 had experienced delays of between 18 and 52 weeks for assessment and treatment.
The east of England is the worst-hit part of the country. By the end of March, more than 2,500 children in the region had been waiting more than a year for appointments.
Services provided at community level include nursing and therapy support for long-term conditions, diet checks, speech and language interventions and wheelchair and prosthetics appointments.
Educational outcomes impacted
NHS officials stated that long delays “can often impact outcomes for children more severely than adults because they have a knock-on effect on communication skills, social development and educational outcomes as well as their mental wellbeing”.
Miriam Deakin, director of policy and strategy for NHS Providers, argued “more investment, co-ordinated support and a more coherent national policy framework is needed”.
“Without it, too many children and young people will continue to miss the window for the right care when they need it most.
An NHS survey found more than two-thirds of health leaders believe more government funding in prevention and early intervention would cut waiting times.
Earlier this month, Schools Week analysis showed health services are creaking as demand for interventions spikes.
‘We’re picking children out of fire’
More than 733,756 children and young people were in contact with children and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) in 2021-22, a 116 per cent rise on the 338,633 children who needed such support in 2017-18.
NHS data also showed there was one school nurse for every seven schools in 2010. The figure now stands at one for every 11 schools.
Sharon White, the chief executive of the School and Public Health Nurses Association (Saphna), said nurses now deal with safeguarding, child protection and mental health issues – rather than prevention.
“We are picking kids out of the fire instead of stopping them falling in in the first place,” she added.
Responding to concerns surrounding community health services, the government stressed “the NHS has reduced the number of patients waiting more than 18 months by over 90% since September 2021”. It added that two-year delays have been “virtually eliminated”.
The government also noted it will invest “£2.3 billion a year by 2024 into mental health services” and that a £2.5 million was spent last year “to improve autism diagnostic pathways”.
A Department of Health spokesperson said a £300 million family hubs programme – which has been launched in 75 local authorities in England – has improved the support given to youngsters.
“The hubs are already making a difference by bringing together services and support for families with babies and children of all ages.
“This will have wide reach across the country and improve outcomes for thousands of babies, children, and families.”