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Mental health first aid training for primary schools ditched, government finally admits

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Mental health first aid training for primary schools, promised by the government as part of £300 million plans to transform support for children, has been scrapped.

The Department for Health and Social Care had previously refused to say whether the training, due to be completed by 2022, had even started.

But after a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by Schools Week, DHSC admitted it decided “not to implement” the primary mental health awareness training. The department claimed this was based on feedback from “busy schools”, adding they had instead brought in “other mental health support measures”.

Margaret Mulholland, SEND and inclusion specialist at school leaders union ASCL, said it is a “major cause for concern” the programme “is not coming after all”.

“There is a potential mental health crisis building and what is needed is awareness at government level that there is a problem, backed up by properly funded support, targeted where it is needed in primary schools.”

Government prioritises pandemic work

In response to the 2018 green paper on young people’s mental health, the government committed to providing mental health awareness training to every secondary school by 2019 and every primary by 2022.

While it was rolled out to secondary schools, the flagship scheme appeared to have stalled in primaries. It was aimed at equipping a staff member from each school with the skills to spot signs and symptoms of mental ill health, and to signpost.

The government’s response to the green paper on child’s mental health in 2018

The DHSC refused to confirm what funding was allocated to the primary school scheme. But the secondary school initiative cost £200,000 a year.

A Schools Week investigation earlier this year revealed it is not clear how much progress the government has made on its £300 million mental health support commitment.

On the primary school first aider pledge, the DHSC had refused to answer repeated questions from Schools Week about whether the training had even begun.

After we submitted an FOI to obtain the information, the department finally revealed it had dumped the commitment.

The FOI response states the preliminary work on implementing primary school MHAT was “halted” so that, with the Department for Education, it “could prioritise efforts that would directly support children and young people’s mental health during the pandemic.”

They said that in the context of the pandemic, as well as delayed plans to train senior mental health leads in schools, the departments prioritised training for staff to “raise awareness about wellbeing and mental health in relation to Covid-19”.

They claim this was based on “feedback” from “busy schools” about what “wellbeing and mental health training to prioritise and how the various offers on mental health fit together”.

In August last year, the DHSC announced an £8 million Wellbeing in Education Return Programme, which they claim was used by more than 90 per cent of councils before it ended in March.

In May, a £7 million Wellbeing in Education Recovery package was launched for local authorities “to adapt training, resources and follow-up support to suit their local contexts”.

Funding ‘not targeted enough’

But Mulholland said while this funding is a “good start” it is “not targeted enough”.

“The government cannot ignore the serious mental health needs of our youngest pupils any longer and must take action now to deal with a problem that will only get worse.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “All school staff should receive high quality training to do this and to ensure that they are well placed to identify emerging mental health needs of pupils and can support and manage pupils with mental health needs in the school environment.”

In February, Public Health England launched a free online psychological first aid training course “aimed at people who care for or work with children and young people”. So far, 71,828 have enrolled for the course.

A DHSC spokesperson said: “Our £15 million wellbeing for education return and recovery programmes provided schools, teachers and parents with knowledge, training and access to resources to support children and young people experiencing mental health pressures as a result of the last year

“The government remains committed to supporting mental wellbeing in primary schools and based on feedback from schools and taking into account the range of support we provide, we have taken the decision to prioritise training for school staff to raise awareness about wellbeing and mental health in relation to COVID-19.”



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