Robert Halfon: Distracted by Covid, policymakers run the risk of creating a mental health epidemic in schools

1 Dec

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

For me, the major concern presented by Omicron is not so much about whether we will be sitting down to Christmas dinner this year, but whether the country is moving again towards de facto school closures.

Even with the vaccination of millions of teachers, support staff and pupils over aged 12, hundreds of thousands of children are still being sent home to isolate. According to the Department for Education’s latest figures, as of November 11 2021, 130,000 of all pupils on roll in state-funded schools did not attend school for Covid-19 related reasons.

Dr Jenny Harries, Chief Executive of the UK Health Security Agency, confirmed directly to me that, like other forms of Covid, thankfully, children are less at risk from the new variant. Moreover, children are not significant vectors for transmission.

Readers may recall from my last column that I recently introduced a 10 Minute Rule Bill, backed by the current and former Children’s Commissioners, and by two previous Children’s Ministers, which aims to prevent future school closures.

The Bill would introduce a ‘triple lock’ of protections to safeguard against any future school closures, except in cases of extreme emergency. The Government would have to seek the advice of the Children’s Commissioner on the necessity of closing schools, hold a debate and vote in Parliament to agree the measure, and then seek the further advice of the Children’s Commissioner and a further vote by Parliament every three weeks to place a strict time-limit on any future disruption.

Ministers follow the science and advice from SAGE and the JCVI when it comes to our health, so it is only logical that they must also follow the advice provided by the Children’s Commissioner and those with the best interests of our children at the heart of their mandate.

Statistics published by the Education Policy Institute show that primary aged children were 3.4 and 2.2 months behind in maths and reading. For disadvantaged pupils, this is even great with 4.2 months and 2.7 months of lost learning respectively.

In 2019-20, the number of children being referred for mental health treatment soared by 60 per cent. In the same year, there was a 46 per cent rise in child eating disorder referrals.

The question that policymakers should be asked is: when considering the risks of Covid to children (minimal – thank goodness), do they also consider the perhaps bigger risk of creating a secondary mental health epidemic, and damage to children’s life chances and educational attainment?

There are three measures the DfE should take to combat these rising mental health challenges.

First, every child must receive a mental health assessment. This is important to understand the full scale of the problem.

Second, Ministers should rocket-boost the proposal in the recent Young People’s Mental Health Green Paper to place a designated senior mental health lead in every school by 2025.

The What Works Centre for Wellbeing has identified that good mental health and wellbeing at age 14-15 has a significant and positive association with educational attainment at age 18. Furthermore, research published by the DfE shows that pupils with better emotional wellbeing at age seven were more than one term ahead of pupils with poorer emotional wellbeing.

Third, we know that social media is like a wrecking ball for young people’s mental health.

According to NHS Digital, 16.7 per cent of children aged 11-16 said the numbers of ‘likes’, ‘comments’, or ‘shares’ they received had a significant impact on their mood. The Royal Society for Public Health found that one in six young people will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their life and that four of the five most used social media platforms make their feelings of anxiety worse.

Perhaps most tellingly of all, a USA Congressional hearing on social media showed that Facebook knew about the harmful mental health effects that Instagram was having on young girls.

The Treasury should introduce a mental health levy for social media giants. Ofcom published a report earlier this year which stated the revenue for social media companies is £4.8 billion. Introducing a two per cent levy could create a funding pot of around £100 million. This could then be distributed to schools to provide mental health support and digital skills training for young people to build the resilience and online safety skills they need.

Teaching and implementing resilience tools and techniques as a means of preventing worsening mental health are fundamental.

I recently visited Newham Collegiate Sixth Form and met with students. The Headteacher described the preventative work they do in the school to help equip students with the mental health tools they need to cope with the hurdles the world puts in their path.

For example, a coach is employed to work with students to develop techniques to conquer their anxieties and school assemblies are utilised to teach the tools needed to help manage highly pressured environments. In private study periods, the desks are set up to resemble an exam hall to help pupils become familiar with the setting so when it comes to a real exam, it does not trigger a reaction causing the student to underperform.

As the Head said to me: “Whilst recognising the seriousness of mental health diagnoses when they occur, we mustn’t allow the narrative of ‘mental health’ to become the crutch that every little challenge is defined under”.

Prevention and resilience are the key weapons that should be amassed to build this arsenal of tools and techniques which can be replicated across the country to conquer poor mental health in our children.

Above all, ensuring that schools are not a revolving door of openings and closures for children is the best way to support young people’s mental health and improve their educational attainment and life chances.

Robert Halfon: We need to get a handle on home education – and the surge of kids who’ve vanished from the school roll

28 Jul

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Thanks to the Centre for Social Justice, we know that around 93,500 children missed over 50 per cent of their school sessions in Autumn 2020. As disturbing as this may be, at least we are aware of these children and can track them with the hope of getting them back into education.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the many thousands of children across our country that are being home educated. We have little information, limited data and no analysis of these pupils’ outcomes. Astonishingly, the Department for Education does not even collect national figures on the number of children in elective home education.

For too long, a fog has shrouded home education.

Compared with our European neighbours, the English model is relatively permissive. A survey from 2018 showed that in a dozen countries, including Germany, home education was possible only in exceptional circumstances and in many cases, parents had to get authorisation. Students’ progress was “monitored and assessed everywhere except in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom”.

Survey figures suggest that, over the year to October 2020, there was a 38 per cent increase in the number of home educated children, with around 75,000 being educated at home. Further to this, Fraser Nelson, the editor of The Spectator, has identified around 20,000 thousand children who have completely vanished from the school roll. We are faced with a surge of missing children, catalysed by the Covid-19 crisis.

The Education Select Committee, which I Chair, published a report this week looking at what steps can be taken to strengthen and support home education. The report was passed unanimously by the Conservative and Labour members of the Committee.

First, our report recommends that the Department for Education should collect much more data and information about home educated pupils. One way of achieving this would be to have a register collected by local authorities. Data from the register would be anonymised nationally. It would enable resources to be targeted. The Department for Education would be able to seriously lend a helping hand to the families of children who have been let down by the school system.

Second, our report notes that every parent is required to secure a suitable education for their child. As we point out, home education should aim to enable the child, when grown-up, to function as an independent citizen in the UK. Individuals are surely independent if they have the qualifications and basic key skills in numeracy and literacy needed to gain access to the jobs ladder of opportunity.

Our report suggests that home educated children should be assessed at least once a year in maths and English. It is worth noting that Anne Longfield, the respected former Children’s Commissioner, has argued for termly visits to home educated children.

Third, too many parents have been forced into un-elective home education. This is especially true of families of children with special educational needs. One parent told our Committee that support for children with special needs was inadequate and that many parents remove their children from school in order to protect them. We are, therefore, proposing the introduction of independent advocates for these families to help them wade through the treacle of bureaucracy and to get the right support for their child.

Fourth, if it is agreed that there should be a register and that home educated children should be assessed, it only seems fair that there should be a level playing field for exams. In practice, this would mean that the Government would fund home educated pupils who wish to complete GCSEs, A-Levels and other relevant qualifications.

Finally, it is worth noting data from the former Children’s Commissioner, suggesting that five per cent of schools were responsible for 40 per cent of children being withdrawn to home education in 2017-18. The Commissioner could not say whether these high numbers reflected parental dissatisfaction or were the result of pressure or influence from the school to withdraw a child.

During the 2018-19 school year, before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ofsted was investigating around one hundred schools for high levels of pupil movement, potentially linked to off-rolling. Of course, permanent exclusions for serious misbehaviour will still be necessary, but there should be a requirement for schools to publish data on their websites about the number of permanent and fixed-term exclusions alongside the number of children taken off the school roll.

With all that being said, there will be many examples of where home education has proven to be successful. However, some families may be struggling. It does not follow that every home educating family has access to the networks and resources they need to provide a “suitable” education.

Neither is it wrong to suggest that home educated children need to have a basic knowledge of literacy and numeracy. After all, pupils in schools are required to take SATS and other examinations. Moreover, by having a register, we can ensure that assistance and resources can be directed to home educated families who are having difficulties.

School reopenings. Public attitudes are more relaxed this time. But the battle is not over for the Government.

12 Nov

Throughout the Coronavirus crisis, one of the most difficult issues the Government has had to face is whether to keep schools open or not. During the first wave, a combination of backlash from teaching unions and parents hurriedly removing their children from classrooms arguably forced ministers’ hands into ordering closures around the country.

In September, after a summer in which the Department of Education was lambasted over an A Level grading system designed by Ofqual, millions of children finally made it back to school, albeit they were subjected to new measures with a view to stopping the spread of Coronavirus.

In spite of all the guidance – from staggered times to one-way systems to children having to socially distance – there are signs of more trouble to come. The National Education Union (NEU) is already pushing for schools to close during lockdown, a demand which has been endorsed by Andy Burnham, the Greater Manchester Mayor.

Labour, too, although currently supportive of keeping schools open, has indicated that schools should be at the front of the queue for mass testing after NHS and social care staff. It remains to be seen how much of an issue it will be if the Government does not go along with that idea.

Then there’s the Welsh Labour government, which has recently cancelled exams for 2021 – in a move that has prompted questions to be asked about why Number 10 has not done the same in anticipation of difficulties next year.

In short, in spite of the fact that schools are now open, it would be wrong to assume that the issue of closures has now been settled for good. Things might change very quickly, as we’ve seen happen during this crisis.

How concerned should the Government be about being pressured into fresh calls for a second round of school closures? What should it do in the interim by way of preparing a response to mounting demands of this nature?

The first thing to say is that public confidence in school openings seems to have changed considerably since the start of the year. As of November 2, the Children’s Commissioner found the attendance rate in England had gone from 17.5 per cent in July (the post-lockdown peak), to 80 per cent in September, with nine out of ten children now back, indicating that parents are relatively content with the current direction.

Tom Hunt, the MP for Ipswich and a member of the Education Select Committee, agrees that something has shifted, and believes unions are “going to struggle in their argument”, adding that “I think there’s much more of a sense that we should keep schools open” among the public.

Teachers, too – at least, by and large – appear to support reopenings. A survey from Teacher Tapp suggests that 46 per cent believe that schools should stay open.

But here comes the more troublesome part; 39 per cent supported closures for this lockdown, and that’s a sufficient constituency for the unions to be able to argue that they have a mandate to insist upon change. Given that there have been teaching strikes in France and elsewhere, the DfE cannot afford to be complacent.

One fear is that the unions will move away from the idea of closing schools, to suggesting a more nuanced approach, but one that would equally prove disruptive to students’ education.

The NEU, for example, has proposed for schools to move to a rota scheme, whereby students spend one week at school, followed by one week at home – hardly the easiest arrangement to roll out. Yet, it may have legs. According to the Teacher Tapp’s survey, this is a strategy teachers would prefer to be adopted should the current Covid outlook not improve.

Of course, if the current lockdown does not lead to better Covid statistics, it will be that much easier for unions to make the case that schools should no longer be fully open, but should close or move into rota systems, or something different.

There are other matters on which the unions might agitate. The possibility of a vaccine soon arriving has prompted questions to be asked as to why teachers are not being prioritised. Until then, unions might argue that schools should remain subject to tough restrictions.

The DfE has already made contingency plans – lest there be a move to more homeschooling. For instance, it has been working with mobile operators to provide temporary access for free additional data, which will give families the ability to use online educational resources at no cost. In normal times, of course, the cost of data could be prohibitively expensive.

The perennial problem has been that of communication. The Government, and in particular Gavin Williamson, has not been a forceful enough advocate of the case for keeping schools open. They have been on the defence throughout. 

The shame is that there is plenty of data to use to show why it matters to keep schools open. Some points to note:

  • The Office for National Statistics’ found that there were no differences in the rates of positive cases between teachers and other professionals working outside of the home between September 2 and October 16 (in which case, why should teachers be prioritised for mass testing above, say, a delivery driver?)
  • The Children’s Commissioner reports that “confirmed Covid cases at school remain very rare. There are just 8,000 (0.1%) pupils reported to be off school with a confirmed Covid case out of a total school population of 8.2 million”.
  • A recent study suggests that schools should have never shut in the first place. No doubt this criticism will get stronger as we get to see the impact that the original closures had on children.

Furthermore, the Children’s Commissioner points out that the average school sends home 62 pupils for every child who tests positive for Covid. Because of overreactions of this sort, it can lead to outbreaks at schools looking worse than they are.

In essence, it is crucial that the Government and DfE keep making the argument as strongly as possible that there should be no further closures at schools, nor any tinkering which might in any way disrupt children’s further future education. 

One possibility is that the Government sets up a task force, led by somebody like Kate Bingham, who can make the case for schools remaining open. 

Whichever way, the Government cannot afford to be complacent about this area. It needs to be proactive, on the offence and as noisy as the unions in its push for reopenings; everything it hasn’t been so far. Or else further trouble will be inevitable.