Nearly all teachers in UK schools have seen a rise in pupil anxiety since the start of the school year compared with a typical autumn term before the pandemic, a new study reveals.
In a poll of 1,130 school leaders, teachers and other staff carried out by the children’s mental health charity Place2Be and the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), 95% said they had seen a rise in anxiety levels.
The figures come ahead of Children’s Mental Health Week, which starts on Monday February 7.
Meanwhile, 86% said they had noticed an increase in pupils experiencing low self-esteem, 76% reported higher levels of depression, while 68% reported seeing increased feelings of anger among pupils.
For those working in secondary schools, 72% said they had seen an increase in pupils engaging in self-harm, while 61% reported an increase in suicidal thoughts among pupils and 56% said more pupils were suffering from eating problems.
Just over one in five – 23% – said they had regularly been able to access specialist support for pupils struggling with their mental health.
School staff said the pandemic had had a negative effect on many aspects of school life, with 91% reporting that it had adversely affected pupils’ ability to engage in learning, while 87% said it had made pupils’ behavior worse and 86% said it had had a negative impact on pupils’ progress.
Teachers and staff had also been affected, with 91% reporting that staff workload had increased during the pandemic, while 89% said there had been a negative effect on staff wellbeing.
Catherine Roche, chief executive of Place2Be, said: “As society tries to regain a sense of normality after two challenging years, we must remember that school leaders and staff remain on the frontline, coping with all the additional needs that pupils are bringing through their gates.
“We know that with the right embedded specialist support, schools can be a fantastic place to address issues early on and promote positive mental health. There has never been a more important time to ensure that schools, and therefore children, receive the support they deserve.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “The findings of this survey are truly shocking – but unfortunately, to anyone working in schools, they are not surprising.”
He said that members “consistently” raised pupil mental health and wellbeing as a top priority, adding, “they really are on the front line when it comes to identifying and dealing with children and young people’s mental health”.
“It’s crucial that when school staff identify a mental health problem with a student they are able to get the specialist help that is required,” he added.
“But as our survey shows, very few school staff find they are able to access specialist support for pupils who need it in a timely way – and this is having a negative impact on pupils’ ability to engage in learning, as well as on school life and staffs’ own wellbeing.”
Paul Gosling, headteacher of Exeter Road Primary School in Exmouth, Devon, and vice-president of the NAHT, said: “For my school, and the other schools in my community, we have found that schools are now very good at helping children with lower-level mental health issues.”
“But there is a growing number of children who need more than a school can offer yet are not ‘severe’ enough to access CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services),” I added.
“It is frustrating, especially for primary schools, who know that a large percentage of these children will go on to have more severe needs when they become teenagers and this could have been prevented by better provision and help at the middle stage.”
For teachers and other staff working in secondary schools, there was a marked increase in anxiety levels among pupils, with 72% reporting a “substantial increase” in pupils’ anxiety levels, compared with 47% reporting this for primary pupils.
Meanwhile, 80% of staff said that increased mental health needs were having a negative impact on pupils’ attendance.
On Thursday, Robert Halfon chair of the Commons’ Education Select Committee, told the Commons that the Government should “tackle the wrecking ball that social media has been to young people’s mental health”.
He highlighted research from The Prince’s Trust finding that social media use in childhood affected wellbeing, adding that 78% of Barnardo’s practitioners reported that children aged between 10 and 15 had accessed unsuitable or harmful content.
He said companies like TikTok were a “Trojan Horse” platform for “damaging children’s lives, not just with their huge amounts of sexualized content but also the damage that they are doing because of images children see”.
Mr Halfon said there should be a 2% levy on social media companies to create a “funding pot of around £100 million” which the Government could use to distribute to schools for the provision on mental health support, as well as “digital skills training for young people to build the resilience and online safety skills they need”.
Conservative MP Mark Fletcher (Bolsover) told the Commons: “It’s amazing how many of my primary schools have said that children, particularly the youngest, have returned and were unable to share space, were unable to share toys and resources. And that is a massive challenge because of Covid.”
“And actually, more than one head teacher has used the word feral, in terms of behaviour.”
On Thursday, year six pupils from the Reach Academy, in Feltham, west London, said social media and online communication had exacerbated anger and mental health issues, with the coronavirus pandemic increasing internet and video game use.
Max, 11, told the PA news agency: “It’s terrible. I’m only on it so I can talk to my friends, because you can DM (direct message) people. That’s the only reason I use it.
“Really, it just causes arguments and I really should not be on it. I do hate being on it.”
Teachers told PA that the age of pupils accessing social media platforms was getting “younger and younger”.
A report published on Friday from the Local Government Association found that the number of children with mental health problems seen by social workers had risen by a quarter since before the pandemic, with nearly 1,500 presenting to councils every week.
In total, 77,390 children were assessed as having a mental health need by councils on March 31 2021, an increase of 25% on the 61,830 two years ago.
Margaret Mulholland, SEND and Inclusion Specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders, said that the report presented a “truly shocking picture” of how disruption “wrought by the pandemic has impacted on the mental wellbeing of children and young people”.
“The lockdowns of 2020 and early 2021 now seem like something of a distant memory but the impact they had on children and young people, and particularly on those who are vulnerable, disadvantaged or with special educational needs, was significant,” she added.
Ms Mulholland said that ASCL had heard “worrying concerns from schools and colleges about student wellbeing, with a rise in anxiety, coupled with a loss of confidence and self-esteem, having an impact on learning and attendance”.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.