At school

Children’s experience in school is increasingly focussed on academic expectations and exam schedules. However, as the place where children spend so much time and experience so many interactions, school is also hugely influential in the development of identity, relationships and emotional wellbeing. Both within the curriculum and more broadly in the school setting, education policy has an obligation to support children and young people’s health and development holistically.

Teachers and students themselves report the mental health impacts of exam pressure, cyber bullying and challenging sexualised behaviour, as well as issues that children might be facing outside of school such as poverty or neglect. Three children in every classroom have a mental health issue, such as anxiety, self-harm or suicidal feelings. But whilst schools might be the right place to provide universal support for children’s emotional wellbeing, they are under-resourced to do this effectively at the moment.

Many experts and campaigners are demanding better investment in counselling services and school nurses who are often the first point of contact for a young person worried about relationships or abuse. Others have emphasised the importance of a statutory curriculum that ensures every child gets positive, up to date and useful teaching on Personal, Social and Health and Economic education (PSHE), which should include Sex and Relationships Education. Five different cross-party parliamentary committees have written to Education Secretary Justine Greening calling for the government to make Sex and Relationships Education a statutory subject so that teachers can give it the focus it deserves and every child is equipped to build safe, confident relationships with others.   

The school system

England’s school system is moving from a majority of state-funded schools overseen by the local authority to academies, funded by the state but overseen by the Department for Education. Currently 35% of secondary schools are overseen by their local authority and 65% are academies and free schools. The government would like all schools to convert to academies by 2020 (although it has revoked its plan to enforce this), and for an increasing number of these to become selective in their admissions. While there is a mixture of good and bad performance in academy schools just as there is in traditional state schools, there are legitimate concerns about the freedom of academies to -

  • Ignore parts of the national curriculum
  • Vary admissions policies with the result that some children can be excluded, including children who arrive mid-term (for example refugees or children in care) and children with special educational needs or disabilities
  • Use unqualified teachers
  • Use governance and financial practices that are open to abuse
  • Form non-geographical networks of academies (Multi-Academy Trusts) based on shared business interests rather than nurturing local connections and accountability

There is a significant shortage of school places overall, putting pressure on class sizes, teachers and parents trying to find the right school for their child – not to mention children themselves. But the transition to the academy school model seems set to exacerbate the challenge of matching local needs to local school provision, and leave children vulnerable to inconsistent school standards and access because of poverty, disability, lack of a parental champion - or simply where they live.

Jonathan Rallings of member organisation Barnardo's has written for us on the importance of accountability and leadership for schools.

England England England