BPS marks a year since first school closures by calling on government to keep a psychological approach to education at the heart of recovery

By Jamie Hill - 20 March 2021


A year on from schools closing to pupils for the first time due to Covid-19, the British Psychological Society (BPS) is urging the government to seize the opportunity created by the pandemic to hit the reset button on its approach to supporting children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing in schools.

Psychology has played a vital role during the pandemic and the BPS today highlights the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the education system to transform its psychological approach to education as we move forward to the long recovery.

The society is also advocating an overhaul of the national curriculum to adequately meet the educational and psychological needs of all children. The BPS has already cautioned the government on the use of the ‘catch up’ narrative and focus on lost learning, and its potential impact on children and young people’s mental health.   

With just 59 Mental Health Support Teams currently up and running in schools in England, the BPS would like to see every school and college in the country being directly supported by a Mental Health Support Team, led by educational or clinical psychologists, as part of an integrated model of provision for children, young people and families.

Mental Health Support Teams are intended to provide early intervention on some mental health and emotional wellbeing issues, such as mild to moderate anxiety, as well as helping staff within a school or college setting to provide a ‘whole school approach’ to mental health and wellbeing.

The government has committed to increasing the number of Mental Health Support Teams in schools and colleges in England from 59 to 400 by April 2023. To date, 750 new educational mental health practitioners have been trained to operate within the teams.

The skillsets of the educational mental health practitioners will play an important role in supporting children and young people, however the BPS is arguing that psychologists with a more holistic understanding of children’s mental health and wellbeing within the context of the educational environment is key to the success of Mental Health Support Teams.

There must be rigorous evaluation of the impact of the teams so that good practice can be shared and any poor provision or practice is improved, as the programme expands.   

Dr Dan O’Hare, co-chair of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Educational and Child Psychology, said:

“The government’s introduction of Mental Health Support Teams in schools was a welcome initiative. However, plans for its ongoing rollout and the make-up of the teams themselves fall drastically short of meeting the mental health and wellbeing needs of children and young people across the country.

“Educational psychologists are concerned that the focus of the Mental Health Support Teams risks locating issues or problems within children’s minds, rather than considering the bigger picture of their wider educational needs, their environment and what else is happening in their lives that could negatively impact on their wellbeing and attainment. It is also imperative that children’s needs are contextualised from an understanding of their unique strengths and skills.

“Mental Health Support Teams must be led by educational or clinical psychologists to ensure children and young people’s needs are met. The addition of educational mental health practitioners is welcome and they will play a key role in supporting systemic change in schools.”

O’Hare added: 

“The government’s current plans to introduce Mental Health Support Teams to just up to a third of schools and colleges is just the tip of the iceberg, and the lack of provision once again creates an unacceptable postcode lottery for children’s mental health and wellbeing.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted children’s and young people’s lives. Society’s fault lines for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged families have been exposed and it’s vital that the right psychological support is available to help them to recover and thrive.

With educational psychologists playing a crucial role alongside teachers and educational professionals to support pupil’s wellbeing throughout the pandemic, the BPS is also highlighting the importance of learning from children’s experiences of learning during lockdown to help shape a more inclusive curriculum and environment that supports attainment for all.

 “When we talk about ‘catch up’ and lost learning, we’re talking about children catching up to a national curriculum that’s not fit for the future or fit for purpose. The impact of the pandemic means we have a really important opportunity to take a holistic look at what works for children, what doesn’t work for them, and how we can support their mental health and wellbeing”, says O’Hare.

“Children’s and families experiences of learning during lockdown have been really varied. As educational psychologists, we’ve seen children with and without additional needs benefitting from having increased autonomy over the pace and nature of their learning, whereas we know other children found it really tough.

“We welcome the Children’s Commissioner’s announcement of a major review into children’s welfare and services, particularly its focus on listening to what children have to say about their experiences during the pandemic and the barriers they experience in their lives. With the right mental health and wellbeing support alongside an inclusive curriculum, together we can enable and empower every child to achieve and thrive.” 

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the British Psychological Society has produced a range of psychological resources to help children, educational professionals and parents navigate their way through the impact of the crisis.

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