An MP has warned of a spike in child protection referrals as pupils prepare to return to the classroom following an extended period of virtual learning.
Conservative MP Dr Caroline Johnson, who also works as a consultant paediatrician, said the pandemic had created “safeguarding issues”, with calls to social care services down by a third as children were learning from home.
Dr Johnson (Sleaford and North Hykeham) also told MPs she had seen more children with psychiatric problems admitted to acute medical wards during the pandemic, and urged the Government to consider how Covid-19 has impacted young people’s mental health.
Speaking in the debate on the Government’s schools road map, Dr Johnson told the Commons: “My experience as a consultant paediatrician throughout the pandemic has been that I have seen more children with psychiatric problems admitted to acute medical wards and indeed more children with eating disorders – something raised by the Royal College Paediatrics and Child Health, of whom I am a member.
The anxiety and the mental health challenge that I’m hearing is structural - it’s a structural weakness that is undermining it allSteve Brine, Winchester MP
“But also safeguarding issues. We know that child protection referrals are down a third. They are often made by schools and it is likely that we will see a spike in these when schools return.”
Conservative former minister Steve Brine said students are “incredibly anxious” about returning to school as “they’ve got used to not being out in society”.
He added that the advised wearing of masks for secondary school pupils until at least Easter was “not helping” nervous schoolchildren who are due to return to the classroom on March 8.
The Winchester MP also told the debate: “I think in my area educational catch-up will be OK in the short to medium term, but the anxiety and the mental health challenge that I’m hearing is structural – it’s a structural weakness that is undermining it all.
“I have heard from so many constituents and parents who have said that they’re pleased schools are going back from March 8, but the children are nervous about going back, they’ve got used to not being out in society. They are incredibly anxious about doing so and that is a structural challenge that’s going to be with them long after the catch-up programmes have done their best.
“I think masks for the anxious are really not helping so I welcome very much the Government’s intention to review that after the Easter holidays.”
Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Daisy Cooper (St Albans) said the country needs “an urgent and bold offering to those pupils who are due to leave school this year”.
Ms Cooper told MPs: “Liberal Democrats would like to see an optional additional year of fully-funded education, with living costs funded where needed, delivered in colleges and universities before they move on to higher education training or into the world of work.”
Opening the debate, Conservative chairman of the Education Select Committee Robert Halfon told MPs: “Catch-up cannot just be about input, it is the output that matters, and if this programme of support is to benefit children and convince the Treasury that it is value for money it will require proper assessment of the outcomes.”
Mr Halfon added that a strong catch-up programme “can help get the Covid generation back on that life chances ladder of opportunity”.
Education Minister Gillian Keegan said: “All members have mentioned children’s mental health and the concern of the impact on children’s mental health.
“Of course we know that we need to improve support for children and people’s mental health and this is not a new issue, but has been further impacted by the pandemic.
“That’s why we’re committed to investing in and expanding and transforming mental health services in England and we’ve committed an additional £2.3 billion of funding a year and 345,000 more children and young people will be able to get additional access and support by 2023/2024.
“And this builds on our existing support including our £8 million wellbeing for education return scheme, which has provided funding for expert advisers and training in every local authority area, and over £10 million of funding to mental health charities.”
She added: “In February, the Prime Minister did appoint Dr Alex George as a youth mental health ambassador to advise the Government and raise awareness on mental health. Plus, we are setting up a mental health in education action group which he will sit on.”