The growing problem of loneliness: How schools can respond

Written by: Charlie Venter | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The mental health crisis has been exacerbated by the pandemic, with schools reporting increasing feelings of loneliness in particular. Charlie Venter explains how his school is supporting pupils' wellbeing, including tackling loneliness

The wellbeing of pupils has been an ever-increasing priority during the pandemic for us at the Kingston Academy.

As part of our work to understand the challenges and how our pupils are faring against the national picture, we took part in the Edurio Pupil Learning Experience and Wellbeing Review last summer.

This survey recorded the responses of 45,000 children from 165 schools and provided a useful appraisal of how children and young people feel.

The national results paint a stark picture (Jackson & Muijs, 2021). Around half of the pupils reported feeling stressed and a quarter reported feeling lonely, while only around half reported feeling well overall.

As the report lays out, many of these results reinforce the trends revealed in pre-pandemic research, with one notable exception: loneliness.

Since the pandemic began, 25% of pupils in the study report feeling lonely. We can compare this to research conducted in 2018 by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which had the figure at around 11%. It is unlikely we can attribute all of this seeming increase to Covid-19, but it is certainly a factor.

Indeed, the latest NHS Digital figures estimate that one in six children and young people now have a probable mental health condition and identify loneliness as a key factor (NHS, 2021), with the problem increasing as students get older.

Since our return to full-time in-person learning, we have taken steps to tackle this reported rise in loneliness. For example, we were able to run day activity trips for all pupils in years 7 to 10, where pastoral leaders thought carefully about pupil groups to promote the formation of friendships.

Our sixth form prefects have also led an initiative to create places for pupils to go at break times to socialise with them, especially if they would otherwise spend lunch alone.

We also rebranded our online “bully-box” into the “worry box” and pupils are invited to report (anonymously if they wish) any worries they might have, including specific instances of isolation.

Lessons from lockdown

We learnt a lot from the first lockdown regarding pupil wellbeing, and we were more prepared for the second in January 2021. We prioritised morning registration so that pupils kept in daily contact with their tutor.

We insisted on cameras being switched on, even briefly, to enable staff to check-in and confirm that pupils were ready for a day of learning. Our administration team was relentless in following up absence and this meant our attendance figures during remote learning were high.

We promoted wellbeing through a screen-break day (apart from a 10-minute individual video call with tutors, which parents were encouraged to attend), with the rest of the day focused on activities to promote positive wellbeing, such as litter-picking, fundraising and digital literacy training.

We have had a drive on oracy during tutor time, with shorter, often virtual assemblies which finish with questions for discussion in pupils’ tutor groups.

Some year groups focus on a particular book which is given to every pupil to inspire them throughout the year on issues relating to wellbeing and self-esteem. For example, year 9 has Dare To Be You by Matthew Syed, year 8 has Fall Off, Get Back On, Keep Going by Clare Balding.

Not only do these books provide ideas for pupils, but they also continue the conversation about wellbeing between the teacher and pupil, and among the pupils themselves. By making wellbeing a celebrated and integral part of school life, we remind pupils that sometimes it is okay not to be okay, and that we can support them when that’s the case.

When pupils returned to school following the first lockdown, we found that there were increased physical incidents, partly due to tensions rising on social media over several months which then played out in the playground.

In response, we adjusted the curriculum allocation so that we could provide weekly PSHE lessons taught by a specialist for all key stage 3 pupils. This has enabled us to upskill pupils in a wide range of areas, including staying safe online and educating pupils about harmful sexual behaviours. We hope that this increased drive will go some way towards protecting pupils in virtual environments, as well as in everyday life.

Access to individualised support

Sometimes a blanket approach across the school, or in one year group, is not enough and there will be pupils in need of individual support. For instance, we have seen increased presentation of disordered eating, as well as other types of self-harm.

We have increased the staffing of our wellbeing hub to include three full-time members of staff. They provide a nurturing environment which can be accessed during the day, as well as bespoke one-to-one interventions which can be delivered over half a day or in shorter sessions across a number of weeks.

They are also skilled in facilitating group activities such as “circle of friends” – developing skills to help students make and keep friends – or anxiety support groups.

We have also invested in training for pastoral leaders, this has included training from experts in early intervention for the prevention of eating disorders. Since the pandemic, we have increased our counsellor’s time to two days a week due to the increased demand for her support. We frequently refer pupils to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and other external services.

Downward trend in wellbeing as children get older

The Edurio research also highlights disparities relating to age: pupils in the latter stages of school reported far lower wellbeing than their younger counterparts. There were steady decreases in overall feelings of wellness, and steady increases of feelings of stress, overworking and poor sleep quality.

By year 13, 69% of pupils felt stressed compared to just 22% of year 1 pupils, while the drop in overall wellness was also stark: just a third of year 13 pupils felt well overall, compared to three quarters (76%) of year 1 pupils. There were also spikes in overworking and poor sleep quality in years 11 and 13, which is perhaps to be expected when uncertainty over exams and next steps are a key focus in those years, exacerbated by the pandemic.

Co-author of the research paper, Daniel Muijs, who is the former head of research at Ofsted, suggests that it is not the case that schools are to blame for wellbeing decreasing. In the report, he writes: “It is not necessarily the case that school itself is the cause of decreased wellbeing, more a reflection of difficulties young people have in navigating adolescence. Of course, knowing where problems lay can help leaders to prepare their pupils for these challenges, and provide support during difficult stages of development.

“All that being said, the fact that we saw peaks in pupils feeling overworked during exam years do appear illustrative of an effect of high-stakes testing, and the inevitable stress this may cause.”

As a leader in a secondary school, this information is reassuring to me but also presents a challenge – if we are not the cause (or at least, not the only cause), then how can we be empowered to be part of the solution? With stretched public services, schools are increasingly operating within the space of social care systems, which again raises many wider ethical questions.

I doubt that we will be able to fully reverse the trend of lower wellbeing for older pupils when biological and societal factors outside our control will be heavily influencing these changes.

Reassuringly, our latest survey research shows that the vast majority of students are happy at school and would recommend the Kingston Academy to others. By identifying points in the school journey where issues can be most prevalent, we are able to help pupils prepare for spikes in stress and develop ways to build resilience to cope, both with the expected stress of adolescence and exams, and with unexpected stress of something like a pandemic.

Learning to manage stress is part of growing up. The ideal balance between some stress and adrenaline which can enhance performance, and too much which can be detrimental will differ from person to person. We remain hopeful that we can help pupils build the necessary resilience to cope with changes and challenges in the future.

  • Charlie Venter is senior deputy headteacher at The Kingston Academy in Surrey.

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