In recent years, much has been made of the deep divides within our education system. As inequality rises and teachers leave the jobs they love in search of fairer pay and conditions, onlookers have been quick to assume that pupils and staff in state and independent schools live separate lives, with little in the way of common experience or expertise, to the detriment of both sectors.
But since the start of the pandemic, two things have become increasingly clear to staff and pupils. First, there are experiences that affect children across all sections of society, and the unfolding youth mental health crisis is a grim and growing part of this picture. Second, schools in both sectors are developing solutions to the crisis from which others can learn. With children waiting up to 21 weeks for a CAMHS appointment as case numbers soar, it is clear that the system is at breaking point.
Since our initial intervention in 2021, the Coalition for Youth Mental Health in Schools – a group of schools from across the state and independent sectors – has continued to raise awareness of the rising number of young people with diagnosed mental health conditions in our schools. Over the past two years, we have welcomed more partners and uncovered more best practice along the way. Today we have published a new report, Solutions for a crisis, that tries to get to the heart of how schools are tackling this problem.
From school design to wellbeing supervisors, and from student voice surveys to a mental health curriculum, we are proud of the education sector’s response to the crisis. But we are also alarmed by the lengths to which staff and trusts are forced to go in order to ensure that schools remain places where students feel safe, supported and confident to be the best versions of themselves.
Our first report called for a stronger government response to the youth mental health crisis. Two years on, this new report shines a light on the tireless work that schools have undertaken to meet the shortfall in child mental health provision while they go on waiting for that response. In the absence of decisive steps from policymakers, schools across the education sector have shared best practice with one another and we believe that this work has the power to improve mental health outcomes for all children.
We champion the potential of partnerships between the state and independent sectors to provide support to students struggling with their mental health. Deep within the ethos of our independent school partners is a belief in service, and we take pride in their efforts to support a wider array of children than many thought possible. Likewise, it is in the DNA of our multi-academy trust members to be generous in sharing best practice among and between schools.
However, the successes that coalition members have had should not mask the urgent need for the government to guarantee adequate mental health provision for all children. It feels astonishing to have to restate this, but access to counselling in school should in no way preclude access to CAMHS outside school. Schools are places of learning, not clinical facilities.
To make matters worse, the unheralded pastoral teams that undertake so much of the vital work on children’s mental health are being forced to give more and more while getting less and less as schools scramble to save money. Asking these expert practitioners to hold back the rising tide with minimal external support leaves staff at risk of burnout and children with often profound needs at the mercy of yet another postcode lottery.
What we need now is a commensurate response from policymakers to ensure that the best practice we are delighted to showcase is available to all schools, and that all children can access a minimum level of mental health support irrespective of their circumstances. Until that happens, the mental health crisis affecting our young people will roll on and on. None of us should be comfortable with that.
The full report, Solutions for a crisis, is available here