Ministers Accused of Failing to Address Mental Health Crisis in English Primary Schools
Research has revealed that only a quarter of English primary schools will be able to offer school-based mental health support by the end of next year. This has led to accusations that ministers have failed to grasp the “tidal wave” of mental ill health affecting children. The research shows that almost three-quarters of primary schools in England will have no access to mental health support teams (MHSTs) by the end of 2024. The figures were obtained by the Liberal Democrats, who sent freedom of information requests to every NHS integrated care board in England. The government has yet to confirm future funding plans.
MHSTs Were Set Up to Address Early Symptoms of Mental Health Disorders
With almost one in five pupils aged seven to 16 thought to have a mental health disorder, specialist support teams were established to work with children in schools. The aim was to address early symptoms and reduce pressure on overstretched NHS services. The teams were widely welcomed when first announced by the government in 2018, promising early intervention in a school-based setting for children aged five to 18 with mild to moderate mental health problems, before they develop into a crisis.
Concerns Over the Rollout of MHSTs
School leaders say the MHSTs are having a positive effect, but the rollout has not gone fast enough or far enough, leaving tens of thousands of children without adequate support either in school or from child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS). There are also concerns that the teams are struggling to meet the needs of children with more complex conditions, who do not reach the high threshold set for a CAMHS referral but need more support than MHSTs can offer.
The Liberal Democrats’ Findings
The Liberal Democrats’ research revealed a “huge postcode lottery” in the rollout of MHSTs, with wide geographical variation in spending per pupil on the teams. In some areas, MHSTs do not cover secondary schools at all. The slowest rollouts were seen in Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and West Berkshire ICB, with existing or planned teams covering just one in five secondary schools and one in 10 primaries.
According to the government, the rollout of MHSTs is ahead of schedule, and it has promised to increase the number from nearly 400 in April 2023, covering 35% of pupils and learners in England, to more than 500 covering about 44% by the same time next year. The government spokesperson said: “These teams represent just one of the ways we are supporting schoolchildren’s mental health, and come on top of our annual £2.3bn investment into mental health services. This means an additional 345,000 children and young people will be able to access the NHS-funded mental health support they need.”
Former Children’s Commissioner for England Responds
The former children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, said: “These shocking figures show the scale of the crisis in unmet mental health need that our children are now facing. Poor mental health, self-harm and in some cases suicide attempts have become part and parcel of growing up for many children, yet children’s mental health services are unable to meet the overwhelming demand.”
Barnardo’s Calls for MHSTs to Cover Every School and College in England
Barnardo’s, which delivers 12 MHSTs across England, launched a petition earlier this year calling on the government to roll out MHSTs to cover every school and college throughout England. The charity’s senior policy adviser, Becky Rice, said: “Children of all ages across both primary and secondary schools are struggling with their mental health – it’s not just something which is impacting those in their teenage years. We need to ensure children of all ages struggling with issues such as low mood, anxiety or emotional regulation get the help and support to manage so they are able to happily progress through the rest of their childhood years without reaching crisis point.”