Mental health

Mental health: How schools are dealing with the ‘new normal’

Headteachers 'pray' the next tragedy is not one of their students

Headteachers 'pray' the next tragedy is not one of their students

2 Dec 2022, 11:24


One in six pupils has a probable mental disorder – that’s more than one million young people. Primary pupils talk about suicide; more secondary pupils are self-harming.

Schools and mental health services are struggling to help and teachers find themselves stepping in to do a job they are not trained for. Schools Week investigates how leaders are dealing with ‘the new normal’ …

School leaders fear it will take a “Baby P” incident in their classroom to trigger proper support to deal with the “new normal” of heightened mental health issues among their pupils.

NHS figures published this week show that one in six school-age children in England has a probable mental disorder. 

The figure hasn’t risen since last year, but it is still much worse than the one in nine pupils pre-Covid. And services are now struggling more than ever to cope.

Headteachers told Schools Week that primary pupils are now talking about suicide, with backlogs for support meaning schools are becoming quasi-social workers.

Vic Goddard, headteacher at Passmores Academy in Essex, said: “Sadly what will happen is there will be a child that’s really let down and loses their life for whatever reason because we just weren’t resourced enough.”

Likening the situation to the Baby P scandal, whose killing in 2007 resulted in a public inquiry to prevent similar cases, he added: “That created a lot of change in social care. I worry it’s going to take something like that before anybody spends any money. All you do is you pray that it’s not one of yours.” 

‘The new normal for mental health’

While the rise in mental health rates has plateaued, the rate among 17 to 19-year-olds – who would have been at school during the pandemic – has risen to one in four, up from one in six last year and one in ten in 2017, NHS figures show.

There has been a drop in primary pupils with probable disorders (from 18.1 per cent in 2021 to 15.2 per cent this year), but a rise in secondary (from 17.7 per cent to 20.4 per cent over the same period).

NHS mental health figures

Boys are more likely to be affected at primary, and girls at secondary. Those with probable disorders are also three times more likely to miss 15 days of school than their classmates. 

Among all 11 to 16-year-olds, a quarter had accessed mental health and wellbeing support at school.

At Passmores Academy, pupils raised 330 mental health-related concerns with school staff between June and November 2021. In the same period this year, the figure stood at 311. Although there has been a slight drop, it’s still way above pre-pandemic levels, Goddard said. 

Concerns about anxiety have risen from 54 to 82.

“When we came back from Covid and cases were incredibly high, we hoped to return to normal,” he said. “But cases haven’t come down and this is the new normal.”

Jamie Barry, head of Yew Tree Primary School in Walsall, West Midlands, said for the first time in his career he’s heard pupils “saying explicitly ‘I’m going to kill myself’”. 

A Teacher Tapp survey earlier this year found 90 per cent of secondary teachers had reported witnessing a safeguarding issue relating to mental health in the past six months. For primaries, this figure was 74 per cent. 

‘I feel my job is a social worker’

Barry said the severity of mental health issues was impacting his own wellbeing. 

“Some days I feel like my job is a social worker and that’s not what I wanted to do,” he said. “I would leave if I could afford to and that breaks my heart to say that. I’ve only ever wanted to do education. I’m 40 and I can’t imagine doing this until I’m 65.”

Goddard said there were “huge increases” in the numbers of children self-harming since the pandemic, which can be hard to spot. 

Rates have begun to drop, but this is because of the work the school has done in providing support.

At Heathfield Community College, a secondary and sixth form in East Sussex, headteacher Caroline Barlow said students’ anxiety levels have “not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels”.

The school has six non-teaching staff members with entry-level mental health support training and pays for an external counsellor. 

Since September, it has also employed a safeguarding and wellbeing lead, who supports students struggling with their mental health.  

But in more “serious” cases, children are referred to Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). 

“You’re either looking at a long waiting list or an expensive private solution. What happens in the interim is that we all try and patch it up and it isn’t enough,” she said. 


Leaders say they are also finding it increasingly difficult to get external help for children with lower-level mental health problems.

A Schools Week investigation this year found that 17 NHS trusts were rejecting on average 18 per cent of CAMHS referrals, with parents and schools saying thresholds are too high. 

“For a full CAMHS appointment, the threshold is higher and higher,” Goddard said. “They’ve got a certain amount of resource and they need to target the most vulnerable children. But what you really want is prevention not cure.”

Yew Tree has two counselling students on placement at present, providing services to children and their families with “lower-level needs” to plug the gap. 

Passmores has its own counselling, provided through the charity Young Concern Trust, as well as a former staff member who retrained as a counsellor. 

But 20 children are on the list and face a three-month wait.

80 per cent rise in children contacting CAMHS

NHS figures show 733,000 children and young people were in contact with mental health services in the 2021-22 financial year, compared with 398,000 in 2018-19. 

The average waiting time for treatment has dropped – from 53 to 40 days. But this can vary, with children in Gloucestershire and Brighton and Hove waiting on average 70 days. 

Claire Murdoch, NHS mental health director, said staff were “working harder than ever to meet this increased demand”. 

The children mental health workforce had increased by more than 40 per cent, she said. 

But Andy Bell, the deputy chief executive at the Centre for Mental Health, said the NHS was “running towards a goal post that is running away from them.

“The system could’ve got better if demand remained stable, but it didn’t because of the pandemic.”

Pupils in the poorest areas are hardest hit. 

A school-age child with a probable disorder was more likely to live in a household that could not afford to keep the home warm – 13.6 per cent – compared with 6 per cent of children who were unlikely to have a disorder, NHS figures show.

The same is true of pupils in households that have fallen behind with bills, rent or mortgage (17.8 per cent compared with 7.6 per cent) and where the household could not afford enough food or had to use a food bank (11.8 per cent compared to 4.4 per cent). 

Experts warn this winter could also be the crunch point, with soaring energy bills and food prices.  

The number of vulnerable pupils at Yew Tree primary – such as those with financial instability at home – has risen from 18 in autumn 2021 to 46 this term.  

Barry said the school has its own foodbank and offers “poverty-related support”, but added: “All of that impacts on mental health.”

Campaigners say support will save costs

Squeezed budgets forced Vardean School, in Brighton to reduce its external counsellor provision from five to three days. It costs about £190 a day to see six students.

Shelley Baker, the school’s head, said: “We’ve done a lot of work to help students. We pay for this, but it’s still not enough. There must be something drastically wrong in the system.” 

Campaign groups in the area have been pushing for school-based counselling in every school, costing the NHS and council about £2 million a year. 

But Brighton and Hove Citizens, an alliance of civil society organisations, estimate that for every £1 invested, £8 could be saved as children might avoid crisis services. 

Brighton and Hove Council said that “in the context of 12 years of government funding cuts to our council totalling more than £100 million we cannot commit” to the request.

Brighton Hove Citizens Assembly

The Department for Education said it wanted schools to provide “safe, calm and supportive learning environments that promote and support mental wellbeing with targeted academic, pastoral and specialist support that helps every young person fulfill their potential”. 

Just over a third of pupils next year will have access to new mental health support teams that provide early intervention in schools. But there are no plans for further roll out.

The government has promised all schools and colleges will have access to senior mental health lead training by 2025. 

The DfE is also looking at procuring “resources hubs” and a separate mental health “toolkit” for schools to “make it easier for staff by saving their time and reducing uncertainty around which resources are most useful”.  

Sarah Hannafin, a senior policy advisor at heads’ union NAHT, said education staff were not mental health specialists and should not be expected to deliver any kind of therapeutic support or treatment to pupils. 

Kadra Abdinasir, strategic lead at the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition, said it was concerned not enough was being done to meet the growing need. 

“It is more important than ever that mental health and wellbeing is put at the heart of education.”

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  1. Mr Kevin Ward

    “It is more important than ever that mental health and wellbeing is put at the heart of education.”. This suggests it is the school responsibility for which they are not trained and are starved of resource to do their main function. Those working in mental health often have supervision to help them and this is not replicated in schools.