IPPO’s first UK-wide policy roundtable discusses the mental health of schoolchildren during COVID-19

Geoff Mulgan

The International Public Policy Observatory held its first roundtable discussion on 11 February, looking at the impacts of COVID-19 on the mental health of schoolchildren – and the nature and efficacy of responses in the UK and further afield. We had with us policymakers from governments in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as leading academics and plenty of others working in the field, including charities and young people.

The issue of children’s wellbeing has rapidly become much more visible. Many children and young people are struggling with existing mental health challenges plus the additional loneliness and anxiety resulting from lockdown, and there is now plenty of data on the extent of these problems.

Our main interest, however, was in what is being done to address them. Our ‘topic snapshot’, prepared ahead of the roundtable, pointed to the importance not only of what schools do to support their pupils, but also of mobilising parents, friends and communities. During the ensuing discussion, we heard from participants about what is being done now to support and skill-up schools, and to work on children’s confidence.

There was a widespread sense that this is an urgent crisis for the UK to address. While less visible than virus infections and the economy, it’s a crisis that could have very long-term impacts.

A particularly strong theme which came up was the need to use the summer of 2021 not simply for children to catch up academically, but to give them a chance to recover in every other way: in relationships, in their wellbeing, and in living life to the full. Indeed, there was general consensus that too narrow a focus on academic catch-up risks making things worse, not better. IPPO will be doing more work around this issue over the next few weeks, pointing to what the options are, and what the evidence tells us about which initiatives are most likely to work.

Research highlighted during the roundtable

What are the consequences of the coronavirus for education? A collection of blogs from the LEARN! academy at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

COVID-19: the experiences of young autistic people and their parents (UCL Institute of Education)

Embedding a whole-school approach to mental health and wellbeing (Welsh Government consultation, July-Sept 2020)

Mental health: children and young people (Scottish Government)

Education, Children and Families: Urgently needed insights for public policy challenges (Policy Scotland)

Understanding parents’ experiences of home-schooling in Northern Ireland (UNESCO Centre, Ulster University)

Focusing on psychological wellbeing in the approach to a new school day (The British Psychological Society)

Carnegie Centre of Excellence for Mental Health in Schools (Leeds Beckett University)

Changes in children mental health symptoms from March to October 2020 (Co-Space report, Nov 2020)

Loneliness in young people (Mental Health Foundation, Feb 2021)

What does PISA tell us about the wellbeing of 15 year olds? (National Foundation for Educational Research, Feb 2021)