Call for ‘new deal' for England's children as poll shows mental health concerns

Photograph: Anthony Devlin/Getty Images

Forty per cent of girls aged 16 to 17 are unhappy with their mental health, more than double the rate for boys, according to a landmark report that calls for the “greatest investment possible” in catchup for schools as part of a “new deal” for children.

The report, from the children’s commissioner for England, Dame Rachel de Souza, follows one of the biggest surveys of its kind, with responses from more than half a million children. It marks De Souza’s first major initiative since her appointment in December, which was seen as controversial owing to her close links with the Conservative party.

As part of a “comprehensive” three-year catchup package for schools, she calls for improved services for children struggling with attendance, faster implementation of tutoring support for those who have lost out most, and a voluntary extension to the school day – known as a “third session” – for catchup as well as sporting and enrichment activities.

Concern about mental health was the standout issue in the Big Ask survey: while 57% of children aged 9-17 are happy with their mental wellbeing, one in five are unhappy with their mental health, with girls and older children in deprived areas the worst affected. Girls aged 16 to 17 are the worst off, according to the survey.

De Souza’s report rejects the idea of a “snowflake” or “lost” generation, depicting the Covid cohort instead as heroic survivors.

“This report is an appeal directly to the government, to the Treasury, to put children at the heart of the recovery,” she says. “The first priority is to bolster catchup funding for schools; we should then use this effort to embed high‑quality, early‑intervention support in the long‑term – both pastorally and academically.

“Very simply, if we keep expectations high – as we must – we must also give students the support they need to be able to reach those standards, especially the disadvantaged and the vulnerable.”

De Souza wants to see rapid expansion of mental health support teams and community mental health hubs to provide children with open access to NHS services for advice and treatment. She also calls for stronger safeguarding from social media platforms and measures to prevent children’s access to online pornography.

Her intervention comes four months after the resignation of the government’s education recovery commissioner, Sir Kevan Collins, over its failure to come up with sufficient funding for his ambitious catchup proposals to help children who have lost months of learning through Covid disruption.

With the comprehensive spending review weeks away, De Souza was reluctant to put a figure on what was needed for catchup, but she endorsed a plan put forward this month by a group of education leaders who called for upwards of £5.8bn over the next three years to help those most affected.

De Souza told the Guardian: “Yes, we lost Sir Kevan and he had a particular take on it. We’ve now got a new minister [Nadhim Zahawi] and there’s a spending review happening. What I’ve tried to do is put forward some strong ideas that come from the children themselves.”

The report, which includes views from those in care, in special schools and from Gypsy/Traveller backgrounds, found that after mental health the top issues children care about are things to do in their local area, life at school and progress in education, while 39% of nine- to 17-year-olds say the environment is one of their main concerns for the future.

“This is not a ‘snowflake generation’. It is a heroic generation. A generation of children who are veterans of a global crisis,” said De Souza. “They have seen how colossally frightening life can be, far too young, and have made a lot of sacrifices.

“But they have endured, and are emerging stronger and prematurely wise. Bruised, yes, and in many cases seriously vulnerable, but, for the most part, happy, optimistic and determined. They are a survivor generation – a sleeves‑up, pragmatic generation, with civic‑minded aspirations.”

Zahawi, who was appointed to replace Gavin Williamson as education secretary in last week’s cabinet reshuffle, said: “This huge survey of half a million children and young people gives us some fantastic insight into what makes them tick. Too often children’s voices are missing from national debates about their wellbeing, but they must be heard – and I am listening. I’m encouraged to see most children and young people are happy, resilient and ambitious, but there are concerns too and we must address them.”

The shadow education secretary, Kate Green, said: “Children and young people have faced unprecedented challenges over the last 18 months but remain optimistic, ambitious and excited for their futures.

“Labour is determined to match this ambition with our comprehensive catchup plan – as the children’s commissioner has called for – delivering small-group tutoring, new activities for every child to socialise and play with friends, and expert mental health support in every school ensuring children can bounce back from the pandemic.”

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