This week, the Department for Education finally published their long awaited reforms on schools and the SEND system. With the reforms being described as ‘levelling up in action’, we wanted to reflect on whether they will deliver the scale of change that is needed in relation to mental health support in education, to create a truly inclusive and supportive system.

What do the reforms do?

The Schools White Paper, ‘Opportunity for all: strong schools with great teachers for your child’ sets out the aspiration for every child to receive the support they need in education. At the heart of the Schools White Paper lies the ambition to drive up attainment in subjects such as Maths and English. Proposals include more targeted support for pupils in these subjects, delivering a high standard of curriculum, behaviour and attendance, and ensuring teachers have increased access to training and development opportunities.

The SEND Review Green Paper sets out proposals on how the government will deliver greater national consistency in Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) support, how this support should be accessed and how it should be funded. This includes plans to develop new national SEND standards, to digitise Education Health and Care Plans, and to create a single national SEND and alternative provision system.  Unlike the Schools White Paper, the SEND Review has a 13 week consultation period where professionals, parent-carers and young people are invited to share their views on the reforms.

Together, both sets of reforms should hopefully result in a transformation in the way support is delivered to children and young people in education. Yet, despite promising to deliver support for all, the balance tips firmly on the side of academic support with little consideration of the additional support that should be put in place to support mental health and wellbeing.

Mental health support is missing

Education settings play a crucial role in the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people – a role that has become even more important as we recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. Whilst the White Paper does include some limited commitments relating to mental health like Mental Health Support Teams (MHSTs) and senior mental health leads, these are existing initiatives. No new funding is committed for additional support or for further roll out of these initiatives so that all pupils can benefit.  What is also concerning is that MHSTs and senior mental health leads form the basis of the White Paper proposals on mental health, yet the future funding of these initiatives has yet to be clarified, creating uncertainty around further roll-out.

A strong focus on behaviour

A major focus of the Schools White Paper is the emphasis on behaviour and attendance, with the paper pledging by 2030 that all children will be taught in ‘calm, orderly, safe and supportive schools with high levels of attendance’.  In particular, the paper commits to ‘driving down incidents of poor behaviour.’  Positively, the paper does recognise that behaviour and school attendance is impacted by wider factors such as mental health. Despite this, there is still a strong emphasis on what will be done to manage behaviour, rather than on the support that will be put in place for pupils with behaviours that challenge and addressing their underlying needs.

It is vital that any work done on behaviour supports the individual needs of children and young people. In our new inquiry on behaviour and mental health in schools, we will explore the importance of creating a positive school environment that promotes both behaviour and mental health.

Delivering the support in practice

Finally, it is welcome to the see the publication of the SEND Green Paper after numerous delays. There have been longstanding concerns regarding timely access to support for young people with SEND.  We know there is a greater prevalence of mental health problems for young people for SEND – the most recent data from NHS Digital shows that more than half of young people with a special education need or disability has a mental health problem (57%) compared to those without SEND (13%). Inadequate SEND support may mean these pupils fall through the gaps, risking their mental health worsening. Yet, it could still be some time until we see the proposals implemented, with some commenting on the lack of urgency of dealing with a system in crisis. This means that for many young people, they will continue to miss out on this much needed additional support.

Opportunity for all or missed opportunity?

Whilst the reforms advocate for greater support for all in education, we believe a crucial opportunity has been missed to deliver a truly integrated system that places the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people at the centre. Urgent action is needed to re-balance the scales so that wellbeing is given the same priority as academic support in order to really deliver opportunity for all.

Author: Charlotte Rainer