This is a cruel way to treat young people

Written by: Dr Mary Bousted | Published:
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary, National Education Union

Child poverty levels have risen, yet again, and now stand at 4.3 million. The impact of this is severe, far-ranging and cruel, says Dr Mary Bousted


The pandemic has made children and young people’s mental health worse. Since the arrival of Covid–19 the prevalence of mental disorders in the young has risen to one child in six according to NHS figures – an alarming rate of mental ill-health.

At a roundtable held by the University of Manchester in March – entitled How can in-school provision better support children after Covid – researchers discussed the role schools can play in fostering and supporting pupil mental wellbeing. They made four key recommendations:

  • Schools should provide a nurturing environment where pupils feel happy and safe.
  • Schools should assess and monitor pupil mental health and wellbeing.
  • Schools should provide direct support in the form of universal and targeted interventions.
  • Schools should refer to other agencies and act as a hub for the other agencies involved.

Teachers and leaders would readily agree with the first three. It is the last which will raise hackles – because they know that savage cuts to local authority funding have led to a drastic cull of the support services that schools used to work with and rely on.

The waiting times for CAMHS services were far too long before the pandemic and will have extended further throughout it. Children and young people should not have to be diagnosed as suicidal before they get the help and support they so desperately need.

Poverty is the strongest indicator of poor mental health in children and young people. In a recent report on young people’s mental and emotional health, the Education Policy Institute (EPI) found that poor children’s feelings about their poverty are strongly associated with lower self-esteem. Poverty causes more mental ill-health even than bullying and rows with parents (Crenna-Jennings, 2021).

This is borne out by research with NEU members. When asked recently, 34 per cent of members in a large-scale survey thought that there had been a big increase in children and young people with poor mental health (NEU, 2021).

The greater the level of deprivation in the members’ schools, the more likely they were to say that the mental health problems of their pupils had increased greatly in the past year. Some of their observations were heart-breaking.

One NEU member wrote: “I called at a pupil’s home during the first lockdown and spoke to an older sibling who was panicking because the free school meals vouchers email hadn’t arrived.

“It was the evening before a bank holiday weekend and there was no food in the house. I will never forget the panic in that year 11 girl’s voice. No school child should have to worry about where their next meal is coming from.”

Another told us: “We have had pupils and their families move into hostels during the pandemic when they were evicted. They were rehoused – but literally were given a house. No furniture, ovens, fridge, washing machine, no carpets. Nothing. We rallied as a school and furnished two homes.”

The scale and extent of child poverty is alarming. In the UK, now, nine pupils in an average class of 30 will be poor (DWP, 2021). They will be leading lives racked by insecurity, with many feeling hungry and unsure of where their next meal will come from.

Many of these poor children will be living in damp, over-crowded accommodation. Up to 1.85 million of them will not be able to access online learning because their homes are not connected to the internet or they do not own a laptop. It was these pupils who attempted during the pandemic to do their school work on their mother’s phone. All of this is unacceptable. All of it is getting worse.

Back at the University of Manchester roundtable, we were told how the evidence shows that schools can make about three per cent of a difference to pupils’ levels of mental wellbeing; the rest, 97 per cent of the sum of children and young people’s mental ill-health, is related to their lives outside school and, particularly, to their poverty.

As children get older their mental health deteriorates along with their growing awareness and understanding of what life chances they are excluded from. This is a cruel way to treat young people.

  • Dr Mary Bousted is the joint general secretary of the National Education Union.


Further information & resources

  • Crenna-Jennings: Young people’s mental and emotional health: Trajectories and drivers in childhood and adolescence, EPI, January 2021: https://bit.ly/3w4nzLx
  • DWP: National Statistics: Households below average income: for financial years ending 1995 to 2020, Department for Work and Pensions, March 2021: https://bit.ly/3tNOTfB
  • NEU: The state of education: Young people’s mental health, April 2021: https://bit.ly/3ofOqBC


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