Writing in the Guardian, Mary O’Hara says that schools are struggling to cope with pupils’ problems as council spending on therapy and counselling dries up. This is an extract…
As the headteacher of large primary school in the west of England, Joan Cunningham is accustomed to the demanding aspects of managing an intake from a mainly disadvantaged area. However, for the past couple of years, she says, one issue has escalated so dramatically that it is nearly at crisis point. “There is so much more pressure on schools and teachers to deal with children’s mental health and behavioural problems,” she says. “We provide as much support as we can but, with fewer resources available and a massive increase in need … the pressure has been incredible.”
Cuts to mental health and other services for young people mean teachers are increasingly having to fill the gap, even though schools do not always have the resources or training to provide the extra support pupils with mental or emotional issues may need.
“It was already hard to access the right services before cuts but its getting worse,” Cunningham says. “Teachers … are not mental health professionals, and now there is a vacuum in the services we have [traditionally] relied on. Social services departments are under more pressure due to cuts, Sure Starts … have vanished, [and] in many cases the voluntary organisations we used to be able to turn to are disappearing. Sign-posting families to where they can get help is much harder because of all of this.” At a time when families are under greater financial strain and “even very young children” are under pressure to achieve academically, she concludes, the need for support is “growing very fast”.
Child and adolescent mental health services (Camhs) have been particularly hard hit. These specialist services assess and treat children and young people with mental, emotional or behavioural difficulties. Typically, when schools cannot offer the support of their own counsellor, or when a child has especially serious difficulties, they will seek out their local Camhs for help.
In many cases, local authorities commission and fund these services, and the impact of council budget cuts on Camhs in some areas has been severe. According to research by the charity Young Minds, two-thirds of councils in England have reduced their Camhs budget since 2010. And when the charity asked NHS trusts and councils about other mental health spending targeted at children and young people, such as youth counselling or specific services for schools, more than half had cut budgets – some by as much as 30%.
The cuts mean local authorities’ Camhs spending is increasingly redirected towards more serious cases of mental ill-health, at the expense of early intervention services. “Draining money from early intervention services is short-sighted and just stores up problems for the future,” says Sarah Brennan, chief executive of Young Minds. “The result is Camhs feels it is being asked to respond to an enormous number of issues and schools feel Camhs has left them high and dry.”
…The cuts to Camhs mean schools are struggling to provide professional support on site. Some have set aside cash from the Pupil Premium to pay for a regular counsellor. Andy Bell, deputy chief executive at the Centre for Mental Health, says that an “ad-hoc” system of support relies too heavily on the initiative of individual heads or teachers, and is undermined by unsatisfactory and arbitrary access to funds. “We see raising awareness of this issue as a major priority,” he says. “When we conducted research on child behavioural problems we found that three-quarters of parents asked teachers for help … However, some schools are better equipped than others. Many have virtually nothing by way of [professional] support, while others have full-time counsellors.”
…A Department for Education spokesperson points to a range of initiatives, including the MindEd website, launched in March, designed to help people working with children, including teachers, “to recognise when a child needs help and how to make sure they get it”. The Department of Health says it has a “priority” focus on children’s mental health and, among other things, has put additional cash in to “talking therapies”, adding that it is liaising with the DfE to improve links between schools and Camhs…
Do you recognise the situation described here of schools being left to pick up the pieces after cuts to youth mental health services? Please share your insights and experiences in the comments or via Twitter…