The 'trauma gap': Schools must not return to 'business as usual' post-lockdown

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The government cannot expect schools to return to “business as usual”, focusing purely on academic performance and the attainment gap – we must prioritise the “trauma gap” as well.

This is the message from children’s charity Barnardo’s as schools begin to re-open to more young people post-lockdown.

It warns that the country’s children have been exposed to “an unprecedented level of trauma, loss and adversity”, with those who were already vulnerable likely to have been badly affected.

A report from the charity – Time for a clean slate – says the coronavirus crisis and our measures to tackle it will have “exacerbated existing inequalities”, especially for children in unsafe home environments.

On top of this, the remote learning situation has made it very difficult for normal safeguarding practice to take place, meaning many problems will have gone under the radar. And many in-school wellbeing interventions “cannot be delivered in the current circumstances”, with children having “less access” to support networks such as via SENCOs or learning mentors.

Children returning to school will also be experiencing grief, anxiety about catching the virus, separation anxiety and other pressures.

The charity warns that its practitioners are already supporting many young people with mental health problems caused by Covid-19, including symptoms of anxiety, stress, sleep dysregulation, depression, reduced self-esteem, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) behaviours, paranoia and self-harm.

A snapshot survey for the report found that nine in 10 school staff believe the pandemic is likely to have affected the mental health and wellbeing of pupils.

The report says we have a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to place mental health and wellbeing at the heart of education. It warns that a return to “business as usual” could be very damaging for many young people and calls for a “readjustment period” of at least one term.

It says this might include a more flexible curriculum, time for children to “re-socialise with friends”, and a change to the school day to focus more on pastoral care, play, outdoor activities and creative outlets.

Some approaches already being planned by schools, according to the report, include:

  • Planning a gradual, phased return, with a flexible curriculum.
  • Risk-assessing children on their return, and enabling the most vulnerable children to return first.
  • More focus on mental health and wellbeing in lessons.
  • Dedicated time for children and young people to talk about their Covid experiences.
  • More time for children and young people to play, be creative, and reconnect with their peers.
  • More pastoral provision, including one-to-one support for pupils.
  • Physical spaces for staff and pupils, e.g. quiet rooms and remembrance gardens.

Barnardo’s is supporting the idea of a “catch-up premium” – first mooted by Robert Halfon MP, chair of the Education Select Committee. However, the charity says this funding should not be solely for academic “catch-up”, but should cover pastoral support too.

Ultimately, however, Barnardo’s says it is time for a “sea-change” in the education system and wants action from government to bring mental health and wellbeing education onto a par with academic achievement. There must also be a similar focus on staff wellbeing, the report adds.

It says the current focus on examinations and academic performance makes it difficult for schools to meet the needs of vulnerable pupils or to prioritise welfare and wellbeing.

The report states: “We cannot simply return to the way things worked prior to this crisis, and bolt on additional requirements on a system that was already stretched.”

Headteachers told Barnardo’s that they must be given time to prioritise wellbeing. One told the researchers: “For the most vulnerable children it is often attachment and trust that need to be built with a child. The sudden detachment will take a long time to repair.”

Another added: “There needs to be change or freedom in the curriculum to support our children's mental health and wellbeing rather than greater emphasis on narrowing the gap or catching up on teaching. Children cannot learn if they are not emotionally stable or ready to learn.”

A headteacher from a special school told the report: “It will take time to build up to 25 hours of learning – many pupils will need to rebuild relationships and trust. The curriculum will need to be adapted to concentrate on emotional wellbeing first rather than just progress academically.”

Barnardo’s chief executive Javed Khan said: “When it comes to this pandemic, we are all in the same storm, but we are not in the same boat. We know children who were already vulnerable before the crisis have been badly affected, and with families now under increasing financial and emotional pressure, more children are now living in poverty and at risk of abuse. Many more are struggling with anxiety, depression and other mental health problems, now largely hidden from the view of teachers and professionals.

“When children return to school, there must be additional resource available to help overcome not just the ‘attainment gap’ but also the ‘trauma gap’ faced by vulnerable pupils. The government should also take this once-in-a-generation opportunity to rebalance the school system, recognising that children rely on school to keep them safe and well, just as much as they need it to pass exams.

“We urge the government to work with schools, local authorities, the NHS and charities to place wellbeing at the heart of the curriculum and school culture, so that every child has the support they need to thrive.”

The report offers a range of further advice about how schools can support children and young people on their return. The overarching message is to be clear with children and young people about what will happen when they return to school and listen to their concerns. Other tips include:

  • Adopt a phased approach to returning to school, so that children and young people are not overwhelmed with a sudden change in their routine.
  • Talk to them about the impact the coronavirus outbreak has had and use the school’s platforms and networks to raise awareness of the issues affecting them.
  • Tell them where they can access support services.
  • Facilitate social events for them, so they can rebuild their friendships and support each other.
  • For those who are transitioning to a new school or college give opportunities to have “closure” via leaving events (even if they have to be delayed).
  • Ensure that there is a place in school where they can access one-to-one support and raise their concerns.
  • Work with local partners to help them to access specialist mental health support when they need it.
  • Think about their whole family and consider the support the school can provide to families who may be struggling, financially or otherwise.
  • Know which pupils are vulnerable – coping with multiple disadvantages and/or lacking adequate protection – and keep in contact with them to ensure they can get the support they need.

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