The government’s plans to help children and young people’s mental health are welcome in spirit, writes Robert Halfon, but they don’t go nearly far enough in numerous serious ways

Half of all mental health conditions first occur by the age of 14, and according to the most recent available data, one in 10 children have some form of diagnosable mental health conditions. The government’s strategy, published in December 2017, was designed to provide a transformative approach to deal with the mental health crisis in our schools and colleges.

But during the joint inquiry of the parliamentary education and health committees, we were told that the strategy would tinker with rather than truly transform the system.

We welcome the direction of travel on young people’s mental health. But our report points out that this long-awaited and much-needed strategy lacks any ambition. The suggested speed of delivery will leave hundreds of thousands of children with no improvement in provision for years.

Mental health is a social justice issue. There is a correlation between social disadvantage and higher rates of prevalence of mental health problems. Yet the strategy fails to link with other strategies and does not refer to social disadvantage. There must be effective coordination with other initiatives from across the government, which should target funding for mental health support into areas of social disadvantage and inequality to enable all students to climb the ladder of opportunity.

The government’s direction of travel is welcome, but we need substantive proposals

We are concerned about the potentially adverse effects of the current testing system on young people’s mental health. We held a discussion forum with young people where participants told us that high-stakes exams are a considerable source of pressure. Despite the minister telling us that education reforms have not made the situation worse, we were not persuaded that the effects of the exam system on young people’s mental health have been taken into account. We have recommended that the government should gather evidence concerning the impact of exam pressure on mental health, and what steps should be considered to help young people cope with it.

It is disappointing that the government did not place sufficient emphasis on prevention and early intervention in its strategy. We need to deal with issues at the root rather than waiting for factors such as the exam system and social media to have an adverse effect on young people’s mental health before we take any action.

The strategy takes little account of workforce pressures, both in education and health services. Take one of the key elements of the government’s strategy, the creation of the designated senior lead for mental health: this is not new resource. There is little detail about the role other than it will be absorbed by the current education workforce in schools and colleges.

We were told that there are not enough resources already and that a stretched teaching workforce does not have the capacity to deliver this proposal.

Training for the role is another issue. Funding has been allocated, but the exact nature, level and length of training has not been decided. This lack of information is unacceptable, and there is a risk that the delivery of the proposals will be stunted by the funding currently allocated.

The government should work with specialists to design an appropriate and thorough training package first, before allocating the funding required to implement it.

We are not denying that the proposal has potential. But the additional pressures must be taken into account, and the government must commit to ensuring adequate support for school staff to deliver this proposal.

The worst outcome would be having teachers put into a position where they take on too great a responsibility without the appropriate training. Teachers need to teach, and without sufficient support, they will not be able to balance the mental health role alongside their normal duties, jeopardising the care and wellbeing of our children.

The education committee is committed to shining a light on social injustice in our society. The ever-increasing crisis of poor mental health of children and young people is a major injustice, and will inhibit young people from climbing the ladder of opportunity in the future.

The government’s direction of travel is welcome, but we need substantive proposals (including sufficient support for the workforce and social media education taught as part of PSHE) and a clear and rapid timetable for action.

 

Robert Halfon is the chair of the education select committee