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Education in the time of Covid

Journalist Ronnie Haydon previews the opening event in a three-part series hosted by the RSM Psychiatry Section exploring how the pandemic has affected the mental health of children, teachers and school staff.

Alongside the pandemic that has caused convulsions in the way we work, learn, and socialise comes a potential mental health crisis among our children and young people. There will be long-term consequences unless significant resources can be put into schools and colleges to support them.  This is the reality behind an online conference entitled Transforming mental health in schools and colleges: the impact of COVID-19, organised by the Royal Society of Medicine in conjunction with Mind, the mental health charity. It takes the form of a day-long webinar on 22nd April, and two further half-day webinars on the 5th and 12th May 2021, free to attend for all interested parties owing to the generosity of The Helen Hamlyn Trust, who provided funding.

The webinar can be accessed either live or in recorded form, and those educational and health professionals who join will be issued with CPD credits and a certificate.

The conference is the latest in a series of successful events, organised by Dr Jacqueline Phillips Owen, Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist. The series brings together key thinkers in the fields of medicine and education, alongside service users and frontline workers, to give a more rounded picture of the mental health of pupils and staff in schools. The 2019 conference, Transforming children’s mental health in schools: Targeted Interventions was extremely well received by attendees, and now that the global epidemic has refocused concern about child and adolescent mental health, as well as that of their teachers, the follow-up event looks likely to spark even more interest.

The series came about as a response to the government’s Green Paper of 2017: Transforming children and young people’s mental health provision. According to this paper, the plan was to provide training for mental health leaders in schools, with a target of having one quarter of these leaders trained and embedded within schools by 2023. The global pandemic put paid to this ambition, undoubtedly, although during a parliamentary health and social care meeting in March 2021 it was revealed that the training was stopped in January 2020, before lockdown – and the subsequent closure of schools – was mooted.

All of which makes the subjects under discussion in this conference ever more relevant, as there has been an unprecedented surge in demand for mental health support among young people. This has prompted the Children’s Commissioner for England Dame Rachel de Souza to state the need for children’s mental health services to be ‘rocket-boosted’ to meet the 2028 deadline for all children in mental health difficulties to receive the necessary support.

The conference programme starts with a session examining the effect that the pandemic has had on the mental health of children and young people. Introduced by Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of Mind, it comprises research presented by Cathy Creswell, Professor of Developmental Psychology at the University of Oxford, who leads the Oxford Psychological Interventions for Children and adolescents (TOPIC). Emily Simonoff, Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Head of Department, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College, London, follows up with her take on the impact of COVID-19 on children and young people with pre-existing mental health conditions.

Representing the educational establishment’s view on how schools are expected to uphold the wellbeing of their students, Amanda Spielman, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, Ofsted, presents The art of the possible, before a number of headteachers, educators and students discuss the quotidian challenges of delivering and receiving lessons and support. These participants represent a variety of schools, from the Bethlem & Maudsley Hospital School (Headteacher Dr John Ivens), through the Leathersellers’ Federation of Schools in south London (Paula Ledger, Executive Headteacher), to technical colleges (Douglas Mitchell, Principle of Ashcroft Technology Academy in Putney, London).

The effect of lockdown on vulnerable children is the subject of the second session of the day, in which Edmund Sonuga-Barke, Professor of Developmental Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience, King’s College London discusses Brain plasticity in a time of extraordinary risks for children. After which Emily Frith, Head of Policy and Advocacy at the Children’s Commissioner’s Office, reports on Childhood in the time of Covid-19.

School examinations, the teenage brain’s aptitude for their demands and the case against them further propelled by Covid cancellation, is the topic taken up by a diverse roster of speakers in session three. The Right Honourable Lord Baker of Dorking, who served as a Conservative MP from 1968 to 1997, was Secretary of State for Education from 1986-89, during which time he introduced a welter of reforms. This including the National Curriculum – discusses the effect of the pandemic on 14- to 18-year olds. Following on, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Professor of Psychology at the University of Cambridge, presents The teenage brain and exams – a misalignment?

Motion for debate: This house believes that COVID-19 has made it essential to shift the balance away from later to earlier intervention in mental health


The conference closes with a debate chaired by Immediate Past President of the RSM, Sir Simon Wessely, Professor of Psychological Medicine and Regius Professor of Psychiatry at King’s College London and a Consultant Liaison Psychiatrist at King’s College and Maudsley Hospitals. This house believes that COVID-19 has made it essential to shift the balance away from later to earlier intervention in mental health, which sees the return of Mind’s Paul Farmer and introduces Dr Jo Casebourne, Chief Executive Officer at the Early Intervention Foundation, to present the case for the motion. Early intervention has been widely reported to be crucial in the current climate, given increasing evidence that mental health and conduct disorders in early childhood can go on to create difficulties in adulthood. Also, owing to increased public understanding of emotional needs and mental wellbeing, the time is right to put child mental health front and centre of their school career. Improving children’s mental health is connected with lower levels of truancy and subsequent exclusion from school, leading to better outcomes in terms of employment.

The case against in this debate is presented by Stephen Scott, Professor of Child Health and Behaviour, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology ad Neuroscience, King's College London. He will be joined by Kathryn Pugh, former Deputy Head of Mental Health in NHS England, leading the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Programme. Moving away from later intervention in favour of acting to support children while they are still very young is by necessity going to put a strain on limited resources. Is there strong enough evidence, gained from carefully measured and assessed outcomes, to justify early intervention?

This debate is inevitably going to spark some lively discussion among the audience, which will no doubt continue long after the closing address. This past year has been unparalleled in its disruption of the national education programme for all ages. Optimists will say that the Covid-19 crisis has shone a light on a mental health emergency that has been brewing in our educational establishments long before the pandemic. Before the pandemic it was estimated that three children in every classroom suffer from some diagnosable mental health problem (Alexia Adrianopoulos, Young Minds), and a mid-pandemic survey from NHS Digital suggests that this number could have increased to one in six children. Intervening early in this worrying state of affairs would appear to be a very healthy way forward.

Register for the 'Transforming mental health in schools and colleges: The impact of COVID-19' conference.


Upcoming events as part of the series:

COVID-19 and the mental health of children from ethnic minority backgrounds in the UK on 5 May 2021

The mental health of teachers and school staff on 12 May 2021

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