By Lauren Barclay
On March 23 2020, many schoolchildren returned home with a smile on their face.
Two extra weeks off school, an extra holiday.
But as time ticked on, and two weeks became 4, the joy of not being at school quickly wore off and young people were left with learning online and missing friends.
Niamh Foreshaw, a sixth form student from Manchester reflects:
“When the pandemic originally started, I was in year 11, expecting to sit my GCSEs like every other year before me and then I was told I was getting 2 weeks off and never went back.
There was a huge amount of uncertainty at the time. I didn’t know what was going to happen with my future, or exam results. And that definitely took a toll on my mental health”
Niamh isn’t alone in how she feels.
Although at a school over 200 miles away, Jacob Robinson shares similar experiences to Niamh.
“Being online for a lot of year 12, we missed out on those sixth form experiences that are typically sixth form for example things like driving, sixth form socials, making new friends.
A lot of those things were made quite difficult being online. At the time, it was quite an isolating experience.”
For Manchester mum, Claire, balancing home schooling with working from home was tough. She asked her daughter Emily, then 7, how she felt during lockdown.
“She(Emily) said that she felt trapped in a cage without a key. It made her feel really upset; she really missed her friends. She said that learning at home was okay, but she hated being stuck on a screen all day. There was no play time and there was no one to play with.”
A report published by Place2Be and NAHT, The School Leaders’ Union , found that almost all staff have recognized an increased prevalence of mental health issues among pupils this school year.
Perhaps, unsurprisingly, after the turbulence of the past few years, staff across both primary and secondary schools noted a big increase in pupils struggling with depression and self-esteem.
In secondary schools, 72% of staff said they had seen an increase in self harm over the year as well as 56% noticed eating difficulties amongst pupils.
Amy, a secondary school teacher, said: “I’ve noticed that a lot of girls in my tutor group will say “I’ve stopped eating because I feel fat, I feel so self-conscious”.
“And then at our school we are being told not to refer students to pastoral because they can’t help them. There’s at least, 6 or 7 students in my tutor group that need mental health support and they are just not getting it because they are not deemed serious enough.”
This lack of support is something that sadly doesn’t come as a surprise to many working in the education sector.
Place2Be’s report found that only 23% of staff had been able to regularly access specialist support for pupils with mental health need leaving a huge number of young people struggling alone.
The impact of covid is just one thing believed has caused a rise in the numbers of pupils struggling.
Whilst as a society we try to rebuild normality, school staff are working hard to both support pupils’ wellbeing, as well as catch-up them up to the educational standards required.
But with a lack of support from both other services, and the government, school staff are often being left to pick up the pieces.
Debbie Hannaford, Head Teacher of Millfield Primary school, said:
“Services are still not coming into schools to work directly with children- so speech and language therapy, assessments by educational psychologists, for example, are all done virtually; this is not acceptable, and children are not receiving their entitlement – their needs aren’t being correctly assessed and identified/diagnosed which means they aren’t being correctly supported in the longer term.”
Debbie also told us, the impact that Covid lockdowns have had on staff:
“Staff are exhausted mentally and physically. Whilst society seems to be ‘getting through’ the pandemic in terms of managing it day to day, and the end is in sight, staff in schools have had no break- yet they are expected to enable the children to ‘catch up’ on 2 years of disrupted learning, manage when there are staff shortages due to illness and live with the worry that Ofsted could arrive at any time and would expect everything to be in place and children to be ‘catching up’.
It’s unreasonable and I think many teachers and leaders in schools will leave the profession if they are financially able to.“
With mental health services already at capacity prior to Covid-19 and educators reaching breaking point, something drastic needs to change if our generation of young people are to receive the help they both need and deserve.