Written evidence submitted by the National Education Union (CYP0071)

  1. Overview  


1.1      The National Education Union (NEU) brings together more than 450,000 teachers, lecturers, support staff and leaders working in maintained and independent schools and colleges across the UK.

1.2      We welcome the opportunity to respond to this inquiry on what progress the Government has made on children and young people’s mental health. Before the pandemic it was estimated that three children in an average-size classroom will experience a mental health issue[1]. That number is now higher, with NHS data showing that one in six children aged between 5 and 22 experience a mental health problem.[2] The effects of the pandemic are likely to compound the difficulties children with mental health problems experience, as well as increase the number of pupils experiencing a mental health problem for the first time, particularly those who have been disproportionately impacted by Covid, including Black families and families in poverty.

1.3      This response draws upon the wealth of data we have collected from our membership over several years and throughout the Covid-19 crisis. It particularly draws upon our ‘State of Education’ survey conducted in October 2020 that had 8,679 responses in total, of which 6,872 were classroom teachers (including Heads of Department); 1,265 were support staff; and 542 were senior leaders. These survey results are a snapshot of the specific challenges schools face and what this means for mental health support in the future.[3]


1.4   Our submission is separated into the following sections:


-            The context of mental health support in schools;

-            What support schools have been able to provide during the Covid-19 pandemic;

-            The roll out of the mental health green paper covering mental health support teams and the Senior Leads for mental health in schools and colleges.


We proceed to make policy recommendations based on the evidence of what mental health support looks like in schools, the challenges to come, and how we can build toward a whole school approach.







  1. The context of mental health support in schools


2.1      Mental health support in schools has steadily decreased over the last 10 years due to Government cuts to school funding[4].   Schools report having fewer numbers of staff to provide general pastoral support as well as access to more specialist on-site mental health support.


2.2      Evidence of this can be seen in the number of teaching assistant (TA) posts, including Emotional Literacy Support Assistants (ELSAs) in schools. TAs play an important role in providing early support to pupils but they have been particularly affected by budgetary pressures. NEU surveys indicate that there has been year on year cuts to TAs. In a 2019 survey, almost 60% of respondents reported that the number of support roles at their school had reduced since last year.[5]


2.3      In our 2019 ‘State of Education’ survey, less than half of the 8,000 respondents said that their school had access to a school counsellor. Only 30% had access to specialist support.  Only 12% said that they had a staff member who was the identified senior mental health lead[6]. The DfE’s own evidence from 2016 highlights that just 62% of schools offer counselling services to their pupils (70% of secondary schools and 52% of primary schools)[7] Similarly, our members report that access to school nurses, education psychologists and external specialist support such as CAMHS is increasingly difficult.  The RCN reports that school nurses have decreased by 30% since 2010[8]. Funding is consistently mentioned by leaders as a barrier to promoting positive mental health and supporting pupils with mental health needs.[9]


2.4      Issues of supporting pupil mental health, however, go beyond schools’ ability to commission and fund specialist mental health support. Our experience of working with school leaders and teachers indicate that there are endemic capacity problems within the system that impact on education practitioners’ ability to identify pupils who are struggling and provide universal preventative interventions that promote positive mental health.


2.5      Large drivers of this lack of capacity are linked to assessment and accountability reforms. Since 2010 education policy has placed an emphasis on a relatively narrow range of subjects as the measures of success of schools and the development of learners. This emphasis has led to the narrowing of the curriculum and a squeezing out of teaching and learning that would support mental wellbeing and children and young people’s social and emotional development[10]. For example, time for planned and regular PSHE or RSHE lessons and for creative subjects like art, drama, PE and cultural enrichment. In primary schools, time to play and to learn through play is increasingly being reduced.

2.6      At the same time, our current assessment system has led to a rigorous culture of testing and academic pressure that have impacted on both teacher and student wellbeing in multiple ways.  English children are already some of the most tested children in the world and the introduction of measures like Baseline will bring yet more tests to children at the very start of their education. A recent poll of young people showed that 90% agreed that they find the exam system increasingly stressful and damaging to their wellbeing and confidence.[11] Pressures on schools to get children through tests also mean that teachers are more likely to say that they do not have time to get to know their pupils as individuals because of the testing culture which labels and ranks children as numbers and scores, rather than viewing them as holistic individuals.[12] 


2.7      The mounting evidence of the damaging impact the assessment and accountability system has on pupil mental health and wellbeing has led to increasing calls for reform. With regards to the accountability system, changes have been made to the Ofsted framework in 2019. Changes include a new judgement relating to student’s personal development, including healthy living and wellbeing. However, the NEU remains sceptical that these changes will lead to any meaningful changes to school culture. The quality of education judgement still takes priority in Ofsted inspections and this judgement still demands schools meet onerous data targets derived from the current assessment system.


2.8      The introduction of statutory Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) in England from September 2020 is welcome. The outbreak of Covid-19 has inevitably disrupted much of what schools have been able to do to plan for the new curriculum. It is too early to assess the impact of this reform on supporting pupil mental health and wellbeing in schools, including whether schools will be empowered to give RSHE the space and time in the curriculum that it deserves.



  1. Mental health support during Covid-19


3.1     Throughout the crisis school leaders, teachers and support staff have developed strategies for supporting children both at home and at school with a primary focus on meeting the basic needs of families (meals provision, access to technology), creating reassuring environments and supporting pupil’s safety, wellbeing and learning needs.[13]


3.2     In October 2020, in the context of the wider opening of schools, we asked our members what support they had put in place to support pupil wellbeing. We found that the most common type of interventions to support wellbeing were focusing on planning PSHE or RSHE lessons or providing specific form or class activities.


In what ways is your school actively seeking to support the mental well-being of pupils?





Specific form/class activities




Drop-in opportunities with designated staff




Employing additional counsellors




Increasing the time existing counsellors are in school




Focus on mental health and well-being in PSHE/RSHE lessons




Allocating individual mentors




Opportunities via school email addresses/worry boxes for pupils to self-identify mental health concerns and seek support




Establish peer mentoring




Staff training in recognising/supporting mental health issues




Increasing referrals to local specialist services (CAMHS)




Working more closely with NHS mental health teams




Using the ‘catch up’ funding to fund mental health interventions




No specific assessment or support is being offered





3.3     We also asked school leaders what the main barriers were, if any, to supporting staff and pupil wellbeing during this time. The vast majority said they lacked time and the resources. 85% of senior leaders said their school lacked time to address the mental health and wellbeing issues that have arisen amongst staff and pupils. 56% said they lacked the resources and 42% said their school lacked the skills to address the problems. Among respondents who said they had observed increases in three markers of poverty/disadvantage[14], 70% said they lacked resources to deal with mental health and wellbeing issues, and 91% said they lacked time.

3.4     Lack of resources is linked to competing pressures on school finances during the pandemic.  For example, school leaders reported that the most common spending of unbudgeted funds since March had been on cleaning materials (91% of senior leaders selected this); protective equipment (85%) and cleaning staff (70%). A significant majority of school leaders (three quarters) said their school had lost income during the pandemic (43% a significant amount; 32% a manageable amount).

3.5     On the return to school, school staff reported that the pandemic had a measurable impact on pupil wellbeing and that they were finding it difficult to re-engage students with teaching and learning. Many reported that children were having issues with concentration levels and a significant minority reported an increase in pupils with hunger or issues with clothing/hygiene, reflecting wider increases in child poverty. Issues of children feeling lonelier and more anxious about the future, as well as the impact of trauma and bereavement on children’s mental health, are well documented elsewhere.[15]


3.6     Staff wellbeing has also been significantly affected by the pandemic. 70% of school leaders said their own wellbeing was worse than in a normal autumn. Among school leaders who had been in the Clinically Vulnerable (CV) or Clinically Extremely Vulnerable (CEV) category at some point during the pandemic, 74% said their wellbeing was worse than a normal autumn. Just 24% of all respondents said that maintaining staff morale was something their school had dealt with well during the pandemic. Increased workload, particularly around keeping schools ‘Covid-secure’ is likely to be a key contributor to poor wellbeing. 


3.7     This data presents a snapshot of some of the challenges that lie ahead and the scale of the change that is needed in schools in order to support children’s wellbeing and learning. In particular, the issue of schools not having enough time or resources to support pupil and staff wellbeing in not a new problem, but the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated many of these existing problems in our education system.


  1. Implementation of the Mental Health Green Paper


4.1     The roll out of the mental health green paper has always been hampered by an unambitious timeframe. We agree with the Health Select Committee’s conclusion at the time that the proposals amount to ‘failing a generation[16]. Many children and young people have not yet experienced the benefits of the reforms outlined, and many more children never will by the time they leave school.  


4.2     In 2017 the NEU also raised concerns that the proposals may risk widening inequality in relation to the provision of mental health support across England. It would see some parts of the country improving their mental health provision further, while other areas could stay static, get worse, and/or risk not catching up in the future.


4.3     In the context of Covid-19, there is an urgent need to address both these issues: the uneven provision of mental health support for children and young people[17], and the timeframe for realising the proposals outlined in the green paper. We believe that efforts should be made to accelerate the roll out of the mental health teams operating in trailblazer areas so that many more schools can access them. Mental health support teams should be prioritised (where they do not already operate) for schools in the worst hit areas by Covid-19, primarily the most disadvantaged areas. We would also like to see further information about how the mental health teams have been operating to support schools, including how their work is joined up with support that already exists within the school and specialist mental health services.


4.4     Another key proposal in the Mental Health Green Paper - the training of Senior Mental Health leads in schools and colleges, has yet to be implemented. It is likely that the outbreak of Covid-19 will further extend timelines for roll out. In the original proposals the Government expected training would be available to all areas by 2025. We would like confirmation from Government as to whether this target will now be met. We also believe that initiatives that have been launched in the interim to make up for training gaps, including the ‘Wellbeing for Education Return Grant[18] must not replace the training meant for Senior Leads over the long term. 


4.5     Notwithstanding the slow roll out of training for Senior Leads, we remain concerned about the capacity of staff to carry out this roleWe believe that additional funding should have been provided to schools to fund a specific post holder given the significant duties involvedboth strategic and operational.   In practice we know that it is the SENCO or a member of the SLT[19] who take on this role - members of staff who are already overworked and time poor. Research shows that existing mental health leads spend fewer than five hours a week doing this role[20].  If the Government is serious about building capacity and incentivising schools to appoint a Senior Mental Health Lead, funding for a specific post would go some way to meeting the barriers that currently exist.


  1. Towards a whole school approach


5.1     The NEU believes a whole school approach[21] is needed to support the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people. We believe that the school ethos and environment, teaching and learning are all vital protective factors for young people’s mental health and play a part in early intervention. Currently, we do not believe that education policy enables schools to take a whole school approach. We also do not think the DfE education recovery package outlined in February 2021 goes far enough.

5.2     The following outlines what reforms we think are needed to make a whole school approach a reality, including what support schools need to respond to the impact of Covid-19 on children’s mental health and wellbeing:


Responding to the impact of Covid-19


5.3     Significant and long-term investment in schools will be vital to support the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people.  The NEU supports the recommendations made by the Sutton Trust that £750 million is needed as a first immediate boost to Pupil Premium. We believe this would go some way to supporting children and young people whose learning has been most affected by the pandemic as well as help address any wellbeing needs.


5.4     In addition, an education recovery package must give schools the capacity and flexibility to invest in wellbeing approaches that would support all pupils - it will not just be children who are disadvantaged who will need tailored support.  The EPI has suggested that a £650 funding package should be given specifically to support children and young people’s wellbeing.  We agree that this investment would enable schools to hire additional staff to deliver mental health support to pupils and teaching staff, run interventions to address socio-emotional skills gaps, improve links with local CAMHS, and deliver training to teachers.


5.5     How we adapt teaching and learning during this time will be crucial to determining how effectively children’s wellbeing is supported. We believe that adaptations will need to address current rigid curriculum and assessment frameworks in order to make space for wellbeing interventions. Proposed holiday schemes at Easter and summer must provide a mix of activities that children and young people will enjoy, build wellbeing and confidence –access to physical exercise and creative activities such as dance, art and music will be key.


5.6     Staff mental wellbeing must be central to recovery.   The DfE must look at ways to reduce staff workload given the significant increase during the pandemic and the impact this has on staff’s wellbeing, risk of burnout and ability to support pupil mental health and wellbeing. 


Sustaining a whole school approach


5.7     Pastoral support must be significantly strengthened and levelled up across the country.  The proposals outlined in the Mental Health Green Paper play a role in strengthening support, but we do not believe they are sufficient given the current delays to implementation and the limited overall ambitions. We believe that, as a minimum, the Government should be aiming for every school to have a school counsellor to level up mental health provision in schools across the country.  


5.8     There must be a wider vision of education that builds schools capacity to support children’s social and emotional development as well as academic. We currently have an assessment driven education system rather than an education system that values the whole child. The NEU has launched an independent commission on assessment in secondary schools in England. The commission will look at the impact of assessment on mental health and wellbeing and what reforms are needed to make the system fairer and more equitable. We would welcome the opportunity to share the findings of the commission with the Health and Social Care committee.


5.9     Real reductions must be made to teacher workload. One in four teachers work more than 60 hours per week[22]. Despite different DfE initiatives over the years, including most recently, actions coming out of the Expert Advisory Group on Staff wellbeing[23], there has been very little impact on reducing workload.  Teachers who are overworked are highly likely to struggle to maintain good wellbeing and will find it harder to effectively support pupil wellbeing.


5.10 The DfE must build the evidence base on what works to support staff wellbeingReducing workload will undoubtedly form part of the picture. We believe that there are significant benefits to school staff having access to supervision, particularly given increasing numbers of children presenting with complex needs around their social and emotional development. We welcome initiatives such as the pilot project with the Education Support Partnership to provide peer support and supervision to leaders but initiatives such as these are not widely available to schools.



February 2021


[1] https://digital.nhs.uk/news-and-events/latest-news/one-in-eight-of-five-to-19-year-olds-had-a-mental-disorder-in-2017-major-new-survey-finds


[3] NEU (2020) State of Education During the Pandemic, unpublished.

[4] https://schoolcuts.org.uk

[5] https://neu.org.uk/press-releases/neu-survey-shows-widespread-funding-and-workload-pressures-school-support-staff

[6] https://neu.org.uk/press-releases/state-education-young-peoples-mental-health


[8] https://rcni.com/nursing-standard/newsroom/news/school-nurse-numbers-uk-fall-30-2010-152546


[10] NUT (2016) A curriculum for All? Available online: https://www.kcl.ac.uk/archive/news/education/news/curriculum-for-all-final.pdf

[11] https://schoolsweek.co.uk/our-assessment-system-contributes-to-poor-mental-health/

[12] NUT (2015) Exam Factories? The impact of accountability measures on children and young people.  Available online:https://www.researchgate.net/publication/309771525_Exam_Factories_The_impact_of_accountability_measures_on_children_and_young_people

[13] For more information of the type of support schools were able to provide at the start of the pandemic please see our submission to the Education Select Committee Enquiry on the ‘Impact of Covid-19 on education and children’s services.’

[14] Members who responded that they had seen a significant increase in pupils coming to school hungry or being hungry during the school day; pupils not having a well-fitted or appropriate school uniform/PE kit; AND pupils coming to school in unclean, damaged or ill-fitting clothes/shoes. Used here as a proxy for members working in schools with a higher rate of disadvantage.


[16] https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmhealth/642/64204.htm

[17] A recent IPPR report indicates a clear gulf in provision of all kinds of mental health support between state schools in more affluent areas and those serving least well-off communities - and an even wider gap with private schools. 


[18] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/wellbeing-for-education-return-grant-s31-grant-determination-letter


[20] Ibid.

[21] Please see Public Health Engand’s (2015) Promoting children and young people’s emotional health and wellbeing: A whole school and college approach.

[22] https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ioe/news/2019/sep/quarter-teachers-england-report-60-hour-working-week