A motion passed by members of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers at their annual conference in Liverpool over Easter warned that as many as three children in every classroom have a diagnosable mental health disorder.
Bella Hewes, a specialist dyslexic tutor from Oxford who moved the motion, told the conference that so-called “safe havens” could be a key strategy in helping pupils struggling with issues such as depression and stress.
Safe havens could be physical spaces in the school building where children can go to feel safe if they are struggling with mental health-related or other issues.
The debate came after the findings of an ATL survey, released at the conference, showed that 91 per cent of 861 school staff who responded said that they knew of children in their schools who had mental health issues.
Of these, 43 per cent said that between 10 and 25 per cent of their school’s children were facing difficulties, while nine per cent said it was between 25 and 50 per cent.
A further three per cent said it was 50 to 75 per cent of children, and four per cent estimated more than 75 per cent.
Half of the respondents also said that the prevalence of mental health issues among students had increased during the past two years.
Ms Hewes told delegates that it was often support staff who pupils turned to when they were struggling and that schools had a need for extra staff to “cope with the myriads of demands” from pupils.
The motion called on ATL to lobby government to secure “appropriate funding” to invest in preventative measures, including safe havens and dedicated staff.
Member Peter Milliken, from Norfolk, backed the motion: “The pressures on young people are getting worse, the pressure to perform 100 per cent of the time is breaking our children, let alone the staff.”
The ATL survey also highlighted the lack of external support for schools, with 43 per cent of respondents saying that Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) have become far more difficult to access in the last two years.
Within the responses to the survey, one head of department at a Reading secondary school, said: “CAMHS is completely overwhelmed. Unless there is significant risk of harm to either the child or others, there is pretty much no point contacting them.”
The government last year introduced new guidance in a bid to support schools and staff to be able to identify mental health issues and to know what to do if they have concerns. However, the survey found that 32 per cent said they had not been given any training in this area, while just nine per cent feel sufficiently trained.
Ms Hewes said that expert support was severely lacking and would be necessary to realise the aims of the government guidance.
She explained: “The expertise to put these guidelines into practice is just not there. Where are the school nurses? Where are the school counsellors? Where are the expert social workers who have the time and resilience to support families in crisis? They’ve been made redundant.”
Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of ATL, said: “The systematic stripping away of social services and CAMHS funding by the current government has left pupils dangerously at risk and, once again, it has been left to school staff to plug the gaps in social care as best they can.”
At its conference, ATL also announced that mental health charity Young Minds is joining its Safer Schools Network, which signposts teachers and support staff to resources and support. CAPTION: Taking a stand: Teachers vote on a motion during the Association of Teachers and Lecturers’ annual conference in Liverpool (Photo: Sarah Turton).