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Is wellbeing less important than league tables?

Human Connection...

Humans were created to be in community – we are deeply social beings. For many young people of school age, school is the most important social arena where friendships are formed, their needs are met and a sense of belonging is experienced. This experience of having needs met and positive relationships leads to a state of well-being resulting in good mental health.


Disconnection.

Unfortunately, that is not the experience for all children and young people. For a sizeable number, school can be a place that causes high levels of anxiety, where important welfare needs are not met, where behaviours are misunderstood and where relationships are are far from nurturing. A place where disconnection can take place. .


Mental health in our classrooms

Even prior to the pandemic there had been a well-documented decline in the emotional wellbeing of our children and young people for over a decade. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the classroom.


Sarah Brennan, Chief Executive of YoungMinds, said:


“There is a mental health crisis in our classrooms. Children and young people today face a huge range of pressures, from exam stress to cyberbullying to finding a job when they finish education, and all the evidence suggests that the situation is getting worse". She goes on to say, “if the government is serious about tackling the crisis, it must rebalance the whole education system.”


In a YouGov survey commissioned by YoungMinds, 82% of teachers agreed that the focus on exams has become disproportionate to the overall wellbeing of students, while 70% think that the government should rebalance the education system to focus more on student wellbeing. In a separate YouGov survey of 1,003 parents across Britain 73% of parents said they would choose a school where children are happy even if previous exam results have not been good and 92% of parents think that schools have a duty to support the wellbeing and mental health of students. Clearly the emotional well-being of our young people in school needs to be addressed.


Patrick Regan, Chief Executive and Co-founder of Kintsugi Hope agrees that a rebalancing in our education system is needed “so that it promotes well-being and life skills as much as it does academic achievement.”


Not Fine in School (NFIS) is a parent/carer-led organisation set up in 2017 in response to the growing number of children and young people who struggle with school attendance. Its closed Facebook group had 170 members in January 2018. Pre-pandemic, numbers were rising at a rate of 600-800 per month and as of May 2022 has a staggering membership of 26,000. It’s important to note that these proactive parents are joining the group to seek help and support where they have been unsuccessful elsewhere.


NFIS write that “barriers (to school attendance) may relate to unmet Special Educational Needs & Disabilities (diagnosed or suspected), bullying, trauma, excessive levels of academic pressure, physical illness or mental illness. School attendance barriers are poorly understood, are compounded by current challenges within education and health systems, and if not removed effectively, can have severe consequences for both child and family.”


NFIS has carried out two surveys, one in 2018 and the other in March 2020, which was cut short by the pandemic (and so had a much lower number of respondents) The 2018 survey showed that 19.3 % of respondents were not attending school at all, and the 2020 survey showed that 23.3 % were enrolled in a school but not receiving any education. Both surveys found that the overarching reason for deregistration from school was prioritisation of their child’s mental health and well-being. The other five highest scoring reasons all relate to a lack of support/empathy from school and pressure to increase attendance.


The mental health crisis in our classrooms has been exacerbated by the pandemic, and if left unaddressed, will lead to many more children falling out of the education system, with potential life-long consequences for many.


Impact on our young people

There are two groups of young people who are likely to be most impacted – and both equally vulnerable.


The first group includes those who feel angry, unmotivated and alienated from learning – likely classified as having “challenging behaviour”. These are the young people who externalize how they are feeling – those who ‘act out’ their feelings. They may shout and fight and be generally disruptive in class. The ones who are misunderstood. The ones at risk of exclusion. The ones that need a compassionate ear to listen to their stories. If nothing is done to change things for these young people, they run the risk of totally disengaging from school and research has shown that these vulnerable young people may well find themselves on the “school to prison pipeline”.


The second group includes those who feel isolated, worthless, anxious or depressed - they can exhibit extreme emotional distress around attending school. They are the ones who tend to internalize their feelings. They generally do not appear to have challenging behaviour and may come across as quieter or even extremely compliant students. They may miss many days of school and despite wanting to be in school, their overwhelming anxiety at the prospect of doing so, prevents it. The pressure on these young people to attend compounds the anxiety and can negatively affect the entire family unit. If nothing is done to change things for these young people, they too may fall out of education.


De-registration

For many families the decision to home-educate is taken at this point, not through a burning desire to home-educate but out of the necessity to meet the emotional needs of the young person where the school was unable to do so (see "for some, de-registration isn't optional" blog). Whilst this much needed escape from the high-pressured school environment relieves the pressure on the young person and their family, young people from this group are arguably the most vulnerable as they rapidly become socially isolated.


Social Isolation

Prior to the pandemic, the impact of social isolation on mental health in young people was well documented. However, the pandemic has highlighted what families of young people who are unable to attend school have known for ages – that social isolation from their peers has a seriously negative impact on the mental health of these young people. This has been validated by the multitude of reports published in recent months highlighting this issue. In a survey commissioned by mental- health charity YoungMinds, 87% of children agreed that they had felt lonely or isolated during lockdown.


This is what our young people who are unable to attend school experience all the time. They are all individuals with hopes, dreams, feelings and a voice that needs to be heard. For most of these children it is not that they don’t want to be in school – but they just can’t force themselves into the systems that we have constructed!


Question: Is it the responsibility of the young person or the adult-managed system to change?


Recent stats:

• 12,790 post primary pupils in Northern Ireland with attendance < 85%

[Based on Northern Ireland Statistics and Research agency attendance figures NI - 2017/18 (no figures since)

9.1 % pupils had <85% attendance in post primary schools

Total of 140545 pupils in post primary (excluding special schools) in 2017/2018]

[Compared to: 12.7 % pupils in England who are classified as persistent absentees when attendance falls below 90% - Dept for Ed – Pupil absence in schools in England Autumn 2018 and Spring 2019]

• NI has the highest overall absence rate (% of half days missed) at post-primary with 6.7%, compared to 5.4% England and highest level of unauthorized absence at 2.2 % compared to 1.5 % England

• NFIS (Not Fine in School) Facebook group was growing at a rate of 600-800 per month prior to pandemic. It now has 15000 members (March 2021).

• In the academic year 2019-20 there were 469 young people in NI known to the EA as being home-schooled who were previously registered in school. 315 of these are post primary. This has been increasing year on year.

• HEDNI (Home Education Northern Ireland) Facebook group currently has 1062 members. It is only for those who are home-educating full time – not during lockdown

• FOI request made last year revealed that in 2018/19 there were 4539 referrals made to the 5 Education Welfare Offices in NI


Re-connection is the solution.

The psychiatrist, Bruce Perry writes that because humans are inescapably social beings, the worst catastrophes that we can experience are those that involve relational loss. Therefore, recovery must involve re-establishing human connections. Perry suggests that the most important healing experiences often occur outside therapy and inside homes, communities and schools.


All of our young people and particularly our vulnerable young people have an absolute right to have their needs met. Emotional well-being is fundamental for academic attainment. A stressed anxious child will have difficulty learning anything. Emotional regulation is essential before we can educate. The high numbers of young people who are currently not attending school point to an education system that does not suit everyone. The old paradigm holds true - “One size does not fit all". In order for our young people to thrive in school we need to start listening to the mental health charities who have been advocating for change for some time.


The Centre for Child Mental Health (CCMH) in conjunction with Trauma Informed Schools UK have been leading the way. They are training schools and communities across the UK to implement interventions informed by over 1000 cutting edge up to date research studies from neuroscience, medicine and psychology. These so-called Trauma-Informed Schools are ones that are able to support children and teenagers who suffer with trauma or mental health challenges and whose troubled behaviour acts as a barrier to learning. The adoption of this approach in our schools would transform the lives of many of our vulnerable young people and would put emotional well-being at the forefront of the agenda moving forward.


It is for these reasons that connect-Ed exists. RW/KW.



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