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The Government could miss a once in a generation opportunity to put children’s mental health and wellbeing at the heart of the education system if it does not make changes when schools reopen their gates after the Coronavirus lockdown.

This is the warning from Barnardo’s in its report Time for a Clean Slate: Children’s Mental Health at the Heart of Education, which is released yesterday.

Children experienced trauma, loss, and adversity

The UK’s largest children’s charity works in schools across the country supporting pupils with their emotional health and wellbeing and says the Government must realise it cannot make them return to the ‘business as usual’ from the pre-pandemic days.

This is because the COVID-19 outbreak, as well as the side effects of the measures to contain it, have exposed the country’s children and young people to an unprecedented level of trauma, loss and adversity.

Some children, who were already extremely vulnerable will have been badly affected.

For example, children and young people living in lockdown or socially isolating in the challenging and unsafe home environments may have lost their ‘safe space’ at school. Some children and young people will have experienced domestic abuse, poverty, or child abuse for the first time.

Others will be grieving for loved ones, and we know the virus has disproportionately affected BAME communities.

Some children will be fearful of catching the virus and others will be experiencing separation anxiety.

Children's Mental Health COVID-19 Coronavirus
What awaits children after the Coronavirus lockdown is lifted

Recommending a so-called readjustment period

As schools start to return, Barnardo’s says they should be allowed to use at least a term as a ‘readjustment period’ where they can be flexible with the curriculum, so they can work through the emotional effects of the pandemic.

This would enable teachers to help their pupils reintegrate into the school environment, re-socialise with their friends, and change the structure of the day so there is more of a focus on pastoral care, play, creative outlets, and outdoor activities.

Barnardo’s survey findings

The call comes as the results of a survey, undertaken by Barnardo’s across schools in England. The small-scale report (112 respondents) revealed 88% of school staff said the pandemic is likely to have an effect on the mental health and wellbeing of their pupils.

And 26% said they did not feel confident they had the tools, skills, or resources to support their pupils in this way.

Barnardo’s would also like to see the Government act on the proposal by the chairman of the Education Select Committee, Robert Halfon, to introduce a catch-up pupil premium for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged pupils.

But this funding should not just be about ‘catching up’ academically and schools should be able to use it flexibly to support these pupils in a holistic way, including for support with mental health and wellbeing.

With the current system weighing heavily on the side of academic performance, Barnardo’s is concerned that schools are finding it difficult to meet the needs of the most vulnerable pupils and to prioritise welfare and wellbeing.

This echoes the views of the school staff surveyed, with more than two thirds (67%) saying they want to see changes in the curriculum structure and exams process.

Barnardo’s Chief Executive Javed Khan said:

“When it comes to this pandemic, we are all in the same storm, but we are not in the same boat.
“We know children who were already vulnerable before the crisis have been badly affected, and with families now under increasing financial and emotional pressure, more children are now living in poverty and at risk of abuse. Many more are struggling with anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems, now largely hidden from the view of teachers and professionals.

“When children return to school, there must be additional resources available to help overcome not just the ‘attainment gap’ but also the ‘trauma gap’ faced by vulnerable pupils.

“The Government should also take this once in a generation opportunity to rebalance the school system, recognising that children rely on the school to keep them safe and well, just as much as they need it to pass exams.

“We urge the Government to work with schools, local authorities, the NHS and charities to place wellbeing at the heart of the curriculum and school culture, so that every child has the support they need to thrive.”

Teenagers’ top tips for schools

The charity also shared some tips on how to support teenagers, based on the answers of 15 – 19-year-olds’:

  • Be clear with children and young people about what will happen when they return to school and listen to their concerns.
  • Adopt a phased approach to returning to school, so that children and young people are not overwhelmed with a sudden change in their routine.
  • Talk to them about the impact the coronavirus outbreak has had and use the school’s platforms and networks to raise awareness of the issues affecting them.
  • Tell them where they can access support services.
  • Facilitate social events for them, so they can rebuild their friendships and support each other.
  • For those who are transitioning to a new school or college give opportunities to have “closure” [graduation ceremonies]. For example, hold leaving events like proms, even if they have to be delayed.
  • Ensure that there is a place in school where they can access one-to-one support and raise their concerns.
  • Work with local partners to support them to access specialist mental health support when they need it.
  • Think about their whole family and consider the support the school can provide to families who may be struggling, financially or otherwise.
  • Know which pupils are vulnerable and keep in contact with them to ensure they can get the support they need.
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Editor in Chief of Ikon London Magazine, journalist, film producer and founder of The DAFTA Film Awards (The DAFTAs).