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Mindfulness in Schools

Volume 745: debated on Wednesday 7 February 2024

[James Gray in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered mindfulness in schools.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Gray. Hon. and right hon. Members present today will no doubt be aware of the tragic case of the 16-year-old schoolgirl, Brianna Ghey, who was murdered in my constituency a year ago this coming Sunday. What they may be less aware of, and this is something I hope to remedy today, is the campaign that was set up in the wake of one of Warrington’s darkest days by her mother, Esther Ghey. The Peace in Mind campaign, working with the Warrington Guardian and with the support of our community, has fundraised over £50,000 since September to bring mindfulness into schools in Warrington. Today, our ask is that the Government commit to bringing that into all schools.

That ask sits within the wider national context of a mental health crisis facing our young people, and an NHS ill-equipped to meet the demand. Alongside that, schools are seeing a crisis in recruitment and retention, with a record number of teachers leaving the profession last year, and more than 3 million working days of sick leave taken last year—a rise of more than 50% compared with pre-pandemic levels. Teachers and school staff are struggling, just like their pupils. While I do not claim that mindfulness is a panacea, I think we can clearly demonstrate that, first, it can be part of the solution to these twin crises, and secondly, the necessity of the Government to act.

Mindfulness programmes are becoming increasingly popular in schools and educational settings worldwide, with a growing quantitative evidence base emerging from research studies. Mindfulness in schools is about introducing children to skills as early as possible to support their lifelong wellbeing. It has benefits for educators, too, including stress regulation and reduction, increased self-compassion and teaching efficacy. Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is considered to be the godfather of modern mindfulness, said:

“Mindfulness means intentionally paying attention to present-moment experience, inside ourselves, our minds and bodies, and in our environment, with an attitude of openness, curiosity, kindness and care.”

That has never been more needed. Emma Mills, headteacher at Birchwood Community High School in Warrington North, wrote in the Times Educational Supplement:

“Lockdown has had a profound effect on our young people: significant social and educational milestones missed; an increased reliance on social media and the online world. We had already seen the challenges and negative influences of social media in schools long before Covid, but lockdown has exacerbated these ten-fold.

Attendance in schools is shockingly low, and safeguarding concerns are through the roof, as are mental health concerns. We are seeing a generation of children who lack empathy, lack resilience and for whom mental health problems have become part of everyday life.

Anxiety, self-harm and suicidal ideation have become part of our teenagers’ vocabulary…It is an unforgiving world full of trolls, hate and vitriol. It is a world we cannot remove or escape, so we need to make sure—

our young people—

“are equipped to deal with it.”

The Mindfulness Initiative’s 2021 report, “Implementing Mindfulness in Schools: An Evidence-Based Guide”, draws on earlier research, including the 2015 “Mindful Nation UK” report from the all-party group on mindfulness, and lays out a robust framework for mindfulness-based interventions in education. I am happy to provide a copy of that report to all interested Members and the Minister. It notes:

“Positive outcomes for children and young people include improved psycho-social and physical health and wellbeing, reduced mental health problems (including stress and depression), and improved social and emotional skills, behaviour, cognition and learning and academic performance.”

Mindfulness trains students to understand and direct their attention with greater awareness and skill, which can improve the capacity of children to focus and concentrate, with less distractions, and develop their working memory and ability to plan. It can help them to recognise worry, manage difficulties and cope with stresses like exams. Self-regulation can help to manage impulsivity and reduce conflict and oppositional behaviour. Although it should not be used as a disciplinary tool, it can help to take the heat out of a situation by providing greater space between stimulus and reaction, and helping a student to understand their feelings, behaviours and the choices they are making.

I declare an interest as co-chair of the all-party group on mindfulness, who wrote part of the report, which I am delighted she is reciting. More than 300 parliamentarians have been on mindfulness courses in this place, to great benefit. The hon. Lady is very welcome to come on the one that is starting in a couple of weeks’ time, as indeed are you, Mr Gray—I am sure it will do you a lot of good.

On this specific point—and it is good that something constructive is coming out of this whole ghastly episode of Brianna Ghey, with the great work that her mother is doing—does the hon. Lady agree that, in schools, it is important that mindfulness is an all-school approach and that it is not used just for certain young people with problems? It is important that mindfulness in schools is enjoyed entirely as a whole-school approach and that it is non-judgmental. That is what makes it so popular.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Indeed, he wrote a fantastic foreword to the report to which I drew the House’s attention. He is right about the whole-school approach, which I will come to later. I am sure that Mr Gray and I, and other hon. Members present, will be pleased to learn more about the sessions that the APPG on mindfulness is running.

Warrington North is only a short drive from the Welsh border. This policy has already been introduced by the Welsh Government as part of the curriculum for wellbeing. Although that is a long-term strategy, early indications from Wales and the schools in Warrington have been positive in the short and medium term.

Beth, a reception teacher trained through Mindfulness for learning, said:

“Mindfulness has become part of the children’s daily routine and we teach children breathing techniques to support their regulation but I was not aware how the course would impact my own well-being. I now have an understanding of the importance of mindfulness and how it allows and teaches me to respond rather than react to different aspects of my day. Now having personally experienced mindfulness as a practice, it has had a positive influence on my teaching.”

As the hon. Member’s constituency neighbour, it is great to see Esther in the Public Gallery today, as well as Tom from the Warrington Guardian, when we are discussing this issue in Parliament. When Esther and I met Dr Jain at the Appleton medical centre, we talked about the overall benefits of mindfulness for the general health of the population. Although we are talking about this in schools, there are real benefits beyond schools. Training young people for these skills for the future will benefit many people over many years. Does the hon. Member agree?

I thank the hon. Member, my next-door constituency neighbour, for that intervention, and I completely agree. That is why this practice should start in primary school. Developing those skills very early on in a person’s life can set them up to have those skills through their life, and I think we will see the benefits of these mindfulness-based interventions throughout people’s lives. This is a long-term plan and strategy. We will not necessarily see many of the benefits right away, but we know we are storing up positive outcomes for the future in a range of areas.

A headteacher from one of my secondary schools told me that embedding a culture of mindfulness was

“changing the way we deal with behaviour incidents, taking away reactivity and helping students and staff to calm down to the point we can better engage about what’s going on. When kids are in isolation, it’s a really useful tool for helping them to reflect and taking the heat out of situations, and guiding them to make better choices”.

Research shows that three features are particularly important to effectiveness and sustainability: the quality and experience of the teacher’s mindfulness practice, how a programme is implemented, and the use of a whole-school approach. Mindfulness is not just about discrete lessons, but should be in the form of a mindfulness thread that runs throughout the day—the way we respond to each other, the way we move around and the way we build relationships, eat food, exercise, and so on.

Sessions on mindfulness in the curriculum are a way to build and develop the skills needed to take it into the rest of the school day and the school’s ethos. It is about giving teachers and school leaders the training and support they need through the postgraduate certificate in education curriculum and in continuing professional development, to be able take it and adapt it to best suit the needs of their school community, which is vital. While we believe the cost implications would be modest, the evidence supports our view that this would pay for itself over time by reducing some of the burden on mental health services, freeing up capacity for more acute cases and providing dividends on the associated costs of unmet mental health need over the long term. This is an investment worth making for the future.

I want to put on the record my thanks to the community in Warrington who, during a cost of living crisis, have dug deep to support this campaign, working with the Mindfulness in Schools Project. I thank the Warrington Guardian and Tom Bedworth in particular; Warrington Wolves; the Warrington Wolves Charitable Foundation, Warrington Borough Council; the business community, including the EngineRooms, Sam Small Ink and Twinkle Time Melts; and all those who have fundraised, including on Wear Pink for Peace Day in November on what would have been Brianna’s 17th birthday. I thank the schools in Warrington, which have gone into this with open minds and hearts, and, in particular, Brianna’s school, Birchwood Community High School.

Above all, I want to thank Esther. Brianna Ghey was sassy, beautiful, kind, courageous and authentically herself. She was loved fiercely, and her death was unspeakably tragic. No parent should ever have to bury their child, but to have gone through what Esther has and to have the drive to seek positive change in the wake of that takes extraordinary courage and compassion. Esther is perhaps the most remarkable person I have ever met. She does not want the sympathy or pity of those here today, but a commitment to stand alongside her and our community in Warrington to deliver a lasting legacy for her daughter. We want to promote empathy, compassion and kindness throughout society, and I hope today’s debate brings us one step closer to achieving that, with a modest, evidence-based ask to put mindfulness on to the national curriculum for the benefit of pupils, staff and our country.

It is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Gray, and a genuine pleasure to follow the excellent speech by the hon. Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols). I too am deeply moved by the response of Esther Ghey to the outrageous murder of her daughter. Her example of compassion and the determination to see the good in others and to demonstrate forgiveness to others is a sobering rebuke and a deeply moving thing, which will do vast amounts of good—it has certainly affected me.

I want to address the issue before us because the issue of wellbeing among our young people is at crisis levels. In the time I have been in Parliament, I have recognised emerging issues through the volumes of casework I receive on particular issues over time. Undoubtably, the biggest spike in issues raised, casework correspondence and conversations I have with people in my constituency is around young people’s mental health. The word “crisis” is bandied about too freely, but it feels like we have a crisis. We could say with some accuracy that people feel more free to talk about mental health and wellbeing these days, whereas perhaps they were more buttoned up a generation or two ago. That is a good thing, but it is also blindingly obvious that we are in an era where our society and culture breed shockingly bad mental health, for a variety of reasons.

It is easy to point the finger at social media and the internet, but I think it has a lot to do with it. In the 1960s, Andy Warhol famously declared that in the future everybody would be famous for 15 minutes, but he didn’t know the half of it. Every kid is famous all the time now, if they want to be, and scrutinised, and observed, and feeling judged and maybe being judged at every moment. To put it slightly trivially, when I was 15, if I made a prat of myself over a girl, eight people knew about it and I got over it. Now, however, that sense of shame, for something that is perhaps very minor, can end up being multiplied and can even cause people lasting and sometimes fatal damage. So, I am deeply concerned about the situation within our culture today and I want to look for solutions that I think will have an impact and make a difference by building resilience for our young people—not only the young people of tomorrow, but the young people of today—as they grow into adults.

Being a Member of Parliament for a constituency with something like 25 outdoor education centres has given me a real sense of the impact of the outdoors on people’s wellbeing and mental health. Outdoor education can take place in so many different ways, but there is no doubt that being active and being outside, which should be common sense for a happy childhood, is unfortunately missing from many if not most young people’s experiences, especially those living in the more deprived communities in our country. It is integral to physical and mental health, and to happiness and wellbeing—we can call it mindfulness. But however we decide to describe it, access to the outdoors is absolutely crucial.

Two years ago, an NHS report found that fewer than half of our young people in the UK met the Chief Medical Officer’s recommendation that young people should engage in 60 minutes of physical activity each day. So it is perhaps no surprise that over 20% of children between eight and 16 have a probable mental health disorder, so described, and that nearly a quarter of year 6 children are considered to be obese. Our physical and mental wellbeing are hugely impacted by the amount of outdoor activity that we are able to engage in.

Outdoor activity can be delivered through forest schools, or through the decision of a school in an urban or rural setting to make use of outdoor learning opportunities, or it can be in a much more specific, out-of-school residential outdoor experience. Such interventions are greatly significant and the evidence base for their value is huge—so much so that we need to make outdoor activity a priority for children. I will come back to that point in a moment.

It is often said, is it not, that it would be great if we stopped fishing people out of the river and stopped them falling in the water in the first place. If we are able to build young people’s resilience, we will hopefully tackle the number of people who are in crisis.

In our part of the world—south Cumbria—child and adult mental health services are run by wonderful people but far too few of them, so they are in desperate circumstances. I know of young people who suffer from eating disorders who were basically told, “Go away and come back when you’re skinnier, or thinner, or more ill, because we haven’t got the resources to help you at this point.” That would never be said to someone with cancer—“Come back when you’re more sick.” We need to help people at the point that they need us.

A constituent in the know told me just last week that autism assessment in south Cumbria has a waiting list of two years. We have shortages of psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, specialist nurses and appropriate beds. In south Cumbria, we have no dedicated separate crisis team for young people within CAMHS. We have people who are therapists and who have been drawn into the crisis work, but doing that means they are dropping or reducing the number of people they see on their regular lists.

All these things need to be fixed, but this debate is a reminder that we would put less pressure on CAMHS if we were able to develop people’s resilience and stop them from getting into a mental health crisis in the first place.

I hope that people will forgive me for taking advantage of this debate in this way, but I also hope that what I am saying is relevant to it. By the way, the Minister’s friends are also friends of mine—Sam Rowlands, a Member of the Senedd, who I think I am right in saying represents north Wales, and Liz Smith, a Conservative Member of the Scottish Parliament. Sam, Liz and I have teamed up to present separately in each of our three Parliaments, Bills that call for outdoor education to be put more front and centre. In particular, my Bill asks that every child, at primary school and at high school, should be given a guaranteed week-long funded residential outdoor experience.

I am not saying that such trips are the answer to everything, but research shows that at the end of five days on an outdoor residential trip with their teacher, a child has built up more rapport with that teacher than they would in an entire 12-month period in the classroom. It is not just about the experience of being away in the lakes or north Wales or wherever it might be; it means that, when that child goes back to school for boring old maths—sorry—on Monday, they are much more likely to listen, learn and be happy at school. They will develop a sense of teamwork, build resilience and learn things about themselves that they did not know. They will gain an understanding of how, when they are in an uncomfortable position, to get themselves out of it, and build skills that will be of lifelong value and give them lifelong comfort with and enjoyment of the outdoors. That will mean that they will choose to spend time in the outdoors throughout their childhood, as they grow older and into adulthood.

It is a relatively inexpensive ask, so I would ask the Minister for Schools, the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), to seriously consider adopting my Bill—it is all his; he can take credit for it. Also, I would ask both Labour and Conservative colleagues present to please have a word with their colleagues in the Senedd and the Scottish Parliament to back Sam and Liz’s Bills in those places, too.

I have listened very carefully to what the hon. Member has said, and I agree with him wholeheartedly. We think of schools as places that will set our children up academically and prepare them for the jobs that they will face in the future, but it is becoming clearer and clearer that schools, along with input from parents, are great places to think about the digital world that young people will live in. Mindfulness and the way that we challenge and think about how young people respond to the pressures that will sit on them should form part of the curriculum.

I very much agree with the hon. Member about time spent outside, but it is when you are inside the classroom that some of the techniques picked up outside can really be beneficial.

I do not want to go off topic too much, but I think that that is very important. One issue with youth provision of all kinds is the question of who draws it up and plans it—old people. The problem is, for people from my generation, the internet did not come along until their mid-20s. We are writing plans and looking at a world that we do not experience in quite the same way as young people, so it is crucial that young people are integral in the co-design of such programmes. These are their challenges, and we need them to lead on them.

I want to make a really practical point. If we want more young people spending time outdoors, engaging with outdoor activities, building their resilience and a love of the outdoors—if we want to tackle mental health issues at source—there is a really simple thing we could do. It might sound particularly odd, but this came up when I was at the Institute for Outdoor Learning conference two weeks ago in Ambleside in my constituency, where I had the privilege of speaking and, more importantly, of meeting lots of professionals. One of the key barriers to people making use of outdoor learning is that teachers can drive a 17-seater minibus, under 3.5 tonnes, with a section 19 permit and MiDAS training, but if teachers are required to gain a full D1 licence —this is really crucial; it is a linchpin—the cost and time involved and the pressures of the school environment create a huge barrier. Therefore, people do not take their kids on those trips. If we can tackle some of the barriers that stop people experiencing outdoor education, that would be a big step forward.

I will put one final point to the Minister before I finish. We are having this debate, in part, because of an appalling, unspeakable act of hate. I want us to do things with our young people that instil a sense of understanding difference and loving others, and that will lead them to seek to put themselves in other people’s shoes and genuinely love their neighbours. The Minister will know this because I am in communication with him and am delighted to say that we will soon, I think, meet representatives of the Lakes School and the ’45 Aid Society. For those of you who do not know what I am talking about, the ’45 Aid Society is made up of the families of the holocaust survivors who were brought to Windermere in 1945. Half of the children who escaped the death camps in Europe came to Windermere—to Troutbeck Bridge, to be precise—where they were rehabilitated and began a new life.

I freely admit that my communities are in one of the least diverse bits of Britain, but the fact is that we have the legacy, between Windermere and Ambleside, of those boys who came from such a hideous experience to be rehabilitated, welcomed, loved here and sent off to do good things in the world. The prospect of a school rebuild and a lasting memorial on the site of the Lakes School is now within touching distance, so I hope the Minister would be prepared to meet—I think he said he would be—with myself, the school leaders and the representatives of the ’45 Aid Society so that we can have something at the centre of our community that helps to teach people around the country of the importance of loving people, even if they are not the same as we are.

To finish, I pay tribute to Esther Ghey for what she has said—particularly in recent times—and to the hon. Member for Warrington North for securing this debate. I would encourage us all to think about practical ways to ensure that we prepare our young people for the world ahead of them—building resilience and doing those things that we know in advance will work and make a difference.

I thank the hon. Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) for raising this massively important issue, and for finding what I felt was the right way to deliver a difficult speech to this House that encompassed all the thoughts we have. I commiserate with the Ghey family here today, who I spoke to beforehand. The interview on Sunday was incredibly emotional, and I said to the shadow Minister on the way into this debate that it was compulsive viewing—when it came on TV, I could not let it go. It was hard for me to watch, but it was harder for the family here today. They are very much in our thoughts and our prayers, and I commend them.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) mentioned the Windermere Children. We had some of them come to my constituency in Strangford; they went to McGill’s farm, down the Drumfad Road. Some of those people married and continued to live and express themselves in my area. I know the McGills who own the farm, and I have been there many times. The old stone buildings are still there where those young Jewish children stayed and were given an opportunity to live a new life in Northern Ireland. Many of those children’s families—including probably their parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts—were murdered by the Nazis.

The pressure that children are under today is immense. I have said to my wife, Sandra, many times, “I wouldn’t like to be a young child growing up today.” I say that honestly, because I see pressures that young people have on them today that I know I did not have growing up—and I say that as a father of three sons and a grandfather of six grandchildren. I am conscious that my sons’ generation faced different pressures, and my grandchildren’s generation face even more pressures, which I find incredibly difficult. Exam pressure and social media expectations are two of those pressures. The mental load that is being carried by our children is absolutely incredible, and for some it is unbearable. Therefore, the support available to them must be equally incredible to match that load and help young people get past the problems they are confronted with.

No longer do we deal with bullies in the schoolyard or on the way home, although in some instances that does still happen; now bullies invade the home through social media—from beyond the keyboard. It is little wonder that we find ourselves in the position we are in, with adult burdens lying heavily on children’s shoulders. That is what is happening in many cases.

I look forward to the shadow Minister’s contribution, because I believe the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) is someone who will encapsulate our thoughts. I also look forward to the speech of our very understanding Minister, who I know grasps the depth of the concerns that we have as elected representatives about how we express ourselves. As you know, Mr Gray, I always try to give a Northern Ireland perspective to these debates, because what is happening in Northern Ireland is replicated across the United Kingdom—the problems we have about mindfulness in schools, and some of the things we are doing. I must say, there are some things that we could probably do better back home.

In October 2020, the Health and Social Care Board in Northern Ireland released the results of its youth wellbeing survey into children and young people’s mental health, which found that the rates of mental health disorders in Northern Ireland are broadly in line with the countries in mainland UK, so what we are talking about can be replicated in all our constituencies. It also outlined that the rates for anxiety and mood disorders were slightly higher in Northen Ireland than in the other countries, and I know the Minister and his civil servants will take note of that. For example, one in eight young people met the criteria for a mood or anxiety disorder. Panic disorder was the most common diagnosis, followed by separation anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder. It is hard to find the right words to describe the pressures our young people are under.

One in eight children and young people in Northern Ireland have experienced emotional difficulties. In the five to 10 age group, boys were more likely to have experienced emotional difficulties, whereas in the 16 to 19 age group it was girls. Again, the stats are slightly different, but they show that, regardless of whether somebody is a young boy or a young girl, these pressures are on them.

An adverse childhood experience is a traumatic event that occurs in a child or young person’s life before the age of 18. Incredibly worryingly, the youth wellbeing survey found that close to one in two young people aged 11 to 19—almost 50%—have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience. That could be the experience that affects them most of all. It could be parental separation or parental mental health problems—all these things can contribute. Emotional neglect, domestic violence and parental alcohol or substance abuse problems were the most commonly reported ACEs. It is difficult for me, as an old grandfather, to recognise that one in two children in the United Kingdom has experienced such events. I look at my grandchildren and say to myself, “Well, if those stats are right, three of my six grandchildren will experience that.” That is what we see in the future for our own children and grandchildren.

What can we do to intervene and provide support? In difficult situations I rely heavily on my Christian faith, and in times of near despair I always consider the verses that tell me that I am not alone and that God very clearly has a plan and a purpose for my life. I understand that schools do not feel called to take that role, which is why many have a pastoral team to help with that aspect of development for children who appreciate spiritual help, and they also take a less faith-based approach through mindfulness.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale referred to outdoor centres, and clearly physical exercise lifts the mental pressures. I understand what he is saying. In my constituency, the Scouts, the Girl Guides, the Girls’ Brigade, the Boys’ Brigade and the Campaigners are organisations that can help young people. That does not apply to everyone, but it does to a brave few—there can be that release or support. The hon. Gentleman and I have a similar outlook on life, so we, and others, probably share that opinion.

As an MLA and, in particular, as an MP over the past few years, I have had to deal with people in distressing circumstances. Parents come to me because their daughters —it is always young girls—have bulimia or other eating disorders. I remember a case I dealt with not longer after I was elected in 2010. I spoke with the Health Minister back home, Edwin Poots, about the daughter of two of my constituents who I know very well. He intervened to bring her over here to St Thomas’ Hospital, just across the river. The intervention from my Health Department back home and the Department of Health here saved that young girl’s life. I know that it did, because I know just how difficult it was for that young girl. Now she is married, she has two young children and she is happy. That would never have happened had it not been for the intervention of the Health Minister back home and the Health Minister here, who intervened and helped. I deal with many other such cases, and have dealt with many over the years, and they are always incredibly difficult to understand.

I have come across some parents—I say this very gently, and it is not in any way meant to be critical—for whom mindfulness techniques are sometimes disconnected from their spiritual beliefs. I say that because that is what I find sometimes. For example, schools are increasingly doing a form of yoga to calm classes down. Many parents are happy with that and enjoy it, yet others do not want their children repeating phrases such as “namaste”, which means, “The god in me bows to the god in you.” They ask that their child does not partake in worship poses like the sun god pose. It is essential that parents retain the ability to withdraw children from such classes on the understanding that they can do quiet reading and not expect lessons to be taught at the same time.

Mental health work in schools must always be a partnership with parents, who wish to have some input into how things are presented to their children at school. The latest figures show that we must take that very seriously. We must not ignore parents. Whether we teach our younger children calming breathing, work with older children so that they can deal with what seems to be inevitable social media abuse, or work with social media providers to do a better job of providing a safe online space, work has to be done. In this House, we need to ensure that mental health work in schools is a priority in terms of time and funding. Again, I look to the Minister, and my honest impression is that he has always tried to encapsulate our thoughts and make important changes.

Any child can get lost in emotions at times, and not all children are fortunate enough to have a loving parent who can hold their hand while they try to find their way out. We have to ensure that every child knows there is someone there to help them find their way. That seems a high bar to set, but it is the only acceptable determination, and I am sure that everyone in this Chamber will join me and others in working towards it. If we achieve that, we will have achieved a whole lot.

It is a pleasure to serve under you as Chair, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) on bringing this important debate to Westminster Hall and representing her constituents on the issue so powerfully and sincerely. I also recognise the incredible work of Brianna Ghey’s family and, in particular, her mum, Esther, who was in Parliament with us today, for her steadfast campaigning for more mental health and wellbeing support for children and young people, for raising over £50,000 for the Peace in Mind campaign, for being such a dignified and strong advocate for more empathy, compassion and kindness in our society, and for embodying those values in such a visible way in the face of unimaginable grief.

The debate shines a spotlight on a very important issue. We have a huge mental health crisis in our schools, and it is holding children and young people back. It is impacting their learning as well as their health. As we have heard from hon. Members today, children and young people are struggling with stress and anxiety more than ever before. Schools are struggling to meet the needs of young people with mental health challenges. The cost of living crisis is adding to the hardship children are facing. Mindfulness is one tool in the armoury to help people think differently: it helps adults and children feel calmer and kinder and it also helps them cope better with stress and to process difficult thoughts. We recognise the impact in schools of the mindfulness assemblies that Esther has delivered.

We know that many children are struggling in school with a narrow and what has been described to me as a joyless curriculum. That is why Labour has pledged to undertake an expert-led curriculum and assessment review, which will look across the system at our curriculum and the assessment and inspection of schools to ensure that we deliver high, rising standards in our schools without sacrificing the fun things that make children want to come to school and boost their confidence and wellbeing. Part of this review will look at how mental health is taught within schools too.

The importance of mental wellbeing is already on the national curriculum, but we know that teachers are cramming so much into the school day and that subjects such as personal, social, health and economic education often do not get the time and focus that they need. Our review would take expert evidence on how we can improve standards across the board, helping to promote a whole-school approach to mental health, so that teachers, pupils, schools and families all have the tools they need to help young people get the very best start in life.

Beyond the curriculum, the situation is dire. The number of children waiting for support is continuously on the rise, with children waiting on month-long lists to access services that are too often inadequate. In many cases, it is keeping children away from school, causing another problem we see: lack of attendance in classrooms. NHS figures recently analysed by The Independent were damning. Almost half a million children are waiting for treatment for their mental health. Some children in Halton in Cheshire have been waiting four-and-a-half years to be seen by a mental health professional. A child who was referred at the start of secondary school would be about to sit their GCSEs by the time they had their first appointment.

The next Labour Government will prioritise dealing with the mental health crisis. We would put specialist mental health professionals in school, ensuring that every young person can access early support and intervention, aiming to resolve problems before they get worse. We would ensure that every community has an open access mental health hub for children and young people—again, providing that early intervention—in a drop-in format, making it accessible for those who most need it. We also know that child and adolescent mental health services waiting lists are contributing to the problem. We would bring down those lists by recruiting thousands of new staff.

Finally, we recognise that this is not just a problem at school but at home too. It is one that parents are increasingly experiencing as well as children. We would ensure that mental health support is available to parents when they need it to. I want to once again pay tribute to the campaigning work by Esther Ghey, her family and my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North in this really important area. I am pleased that the debate has given us the opportunity to think more about mindfulness in schools and the contribution it can make to improving the wellbeing of our children and young people.

It has been helpful to listen to hon. Members talk about the wider issues of mental health. They have been raised very eloquently by Members right across the House, including the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), and for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron). We need to do more to support our young people. Labour has set out how it would work to achieve that in Government. I hope to hear more from the Minister on what steps will be taken now by the Government to address this crisis, which we know is causing so much harm to our children and young people today.

It is good to see you in the Chair for today’s debate, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) on bringing this important subject to Westminster Hall today. I thank and commend everybody who has taken part: my hon. Friends the Members for Warrington South (Andy Carter) and for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), the hon. Members for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), who speaks for the Opposition.

It is very important to discuss these issues, especially in the light of the tragic death of Brianna Ghey, who was a constituent of the hon. Member for Warrington North, and the outcome of the murder trial. It is a truly heartbreaking case, and our thoughts are with Brianna’s family and friends. Obviously, no one should be subject to any violence, let alone have their young life cut short in this most unspeakable and unthinkable way.

Schools and colleges should be respectful and tolerant places where bullying is never tolerated. I want to specifically recognise the work of Brianna’s mother to create positive action following her most terrible loss. Her ambition to promote empathy, compassion and resilience through the Peace in Mind campaign is one that we all commend.

There are few things more critical than the happiness of our children. The Government actively explore approaches that could improve young people’s mental health and wellbeing, such as mindfulness interventions. We are, of course, in Children’s Mental Health Week, and yesterday was—this is not exactly the same subject, but there is a lot of commonality, as has been explored again today—Safer Internet Day.

There is evidence of the benefits of mindfulness, and many schools will feel a positive impact on their students from programmes such as the one provided by the Mindfulness in Schools Project, but we should remember that it might not be right for everyone, every school or every individual in a school. Schools should retain flexibility to choose the interventions that suit their pupils and their local context, supported by high-quality evidence and guidance.

To help schools decide what support to put in place, we are offering all state schools and colleges a grant to train a senior mental health lead by next year. Over 14,400 have claimed such a grant so far, including four fifths of the schools in Warrington. The training supports the leads to assess and implement interventions that are suitable for their setting, which can include mindfulness. Our recently launched targeted support toolkit builds on that, providing senior mental health leads with further guidance on evidence-based interventions, again including mindfulness.

In addition, schools can look to the Education Endowment Foundation and to Foundations, formerly known as the Early Intervention Foundation, to review the evidence on the various approaches to support their students. We are funding a large-scale programme—I believe it is one of the biggest ever programmes—of randomised controlled trials of approaches to improving pupil mental wellbeing, improving our understanding of what works and providing new evidence for schools to use in planning their approaches. More than 300 schools have been involved, and the findings will help us evaluate the impact of a variety of interventions on mental health and on wider measures, including wellbeing, behavioural issues and teacher relationships.

The programme includes the INSPIRE trial, which is testing three approaches to improving mental wellbeing in school: daily five-minute mindfulness-based exercises, daily five-minute relaxation exercises and a new curriculum programme for mental wellbeing. I reminded myself earlier today that it was this week in 2019 that I had the opportunity of visiting Hayes School in Bromley, which was taking part in the programme, and where I had the chance to join a classroom-based mindfulness session. The trials have gone on for quite some time, although covid, as with so many other things, took a chunk out of the middle. However, the trials will conclude this Easter, and I want the results to be out as soon as possible—I hope by the autumn.

Our senior lead training also promotes tackling mental health and wellbeing through the curriculum, both directly in health education and by integrating the issue into the wider curriculum. In September 2020, we made health education, including mental health education, compulsory for all pupils in state-funded schools. That guarantees teaching on how to recognise the early signs of mental wellbeing concerns and where and how to seek support and self-care techniques, which again can include mindfulness.

We should remember that wellbeing-promoting behaviours can be encouraged beyond the classroom, and that has come up a number of times in the debate today. In particular, schools can develop their enrichment offers with an eye to NHS England’s “5 steps to mental wellbeing”, which sets out the steps that we can all take to improve our personal wellbeing. Those are, first, connecting with others; secondly, being active; thirdly, learning new skills; fourthly, giving to others; and, of course, fifthly, paying attention to the present moment—something that colleagues present might recognise as mindfulness.

We have spoken a number of times about the general extracurricular, or co-curricular, set of activities and their importance in developing character and resilience, and I could not agree more with colleagues about the importance of everything outside the classroom. That can be about outdoor learning, as the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale said, or about sporting activities, music or voluntary work—all manner of things that help to give us a sense of purpose.

There is also a range of self-regulation and wellbeing techniques, and mindfulness is one. Seeing my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham reminded me of a very good product created by West Sussex CAMHS, which I think is called an A to Z of wellbeing techniques for use with primary school children—of course, issues can sometimes develop from quite an early age.

The hon. Member for Strangford and others are right to talk about the particular pressures that young people today face. In many ways, the world they are growing up into is better, with more opportunities than ever before, but there are also new and different pressures that just did not exist when anybody in this Chamber was young. A lot of that is to do with electronica and social media.

Could the Minister perhaps say a little more about some of the calls made for social media platforms to do more to prevent under-16-year-olds, in particular, from accessing their services? One of the greatest mental health challenges is the incessant presence of a mobile phone and a screen.

Indeed, but I do not want to try our Chair’s patience too much by moving too far beyond mindfulness, which is of course the subject of the debate. I have taken a very active interest in these matters for a long time, in my time at the Department for Education and at the Home Office, and otherwise in Parliament, and I think social media companies can do more.

Of course, we have just legislated in the Online Safety Act 2023. Most social media companies stipulate a minimum age of 13, but it is not uncommon for people to find a way around that minimum age. With the Online Safety Act, those companies will have to say how they are going to enforce that minimum age and then deliver on it. They are also going to have to ensure that they are protecting children from harmful content and removing, in good time, content that is illegal and identified as such. That is the legislation, but we do not need to wait for a law to do some of those things. I would say to everybody working in the technology field or in social media, most of whom have families themselves, that we all have a shared responsibility to think about the mental health, wellbeing and true interests of children and young people growing up.

I was just talking about the range of extracurricular activities, and I want to mention the range of support across Government for those, including the national youth guarantee and the enrichment partnerships pilot. We are also encouraging children to spend time in nature and to take in their surroundings, which I think the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale will welcome. The natural world has so much to offer in terms of grounding us, and we can see the potential of that through our work on the national education nature park, for example.

We have spoken a couple of times, rightly, about wider mental health provision, particularly for children and adolescents. More resourcing has been and is going into CAMHS; the issue is that the demand has also been growing. An investment of up to a further £2.3 billion a year is going into transforming NHS mental health services, including meeting the aim that over 300,000 more children and young people will have been able to access NHS-funded mental health support by March 2024.

A number of things that colleagues have talked about, including mindfulness—the key subject of the debate—and self-regulation techniques, general wellbeing and building up resilience, have an important role in helping to prevent some of that pressure. One wants to make people resilient and resistant to some of the problems that inevitably come our way in life and able, if there are relatively low-level issues, to deal with them before they become bigger. One also wants, as I said, to relieve some of that pressure.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North rightly mentioned counsellors and mental health professionals in schools. Many schools already provide targeted support to pupils through counsellors, pastoral staff, educational psychologists and other roles. No single intervention works for every pupil; again, I think it is important that settings have the freedom to decide what is the best support in their circumstance and for their cohort of children.

I want to ask a question about the idea of schools having flexibility. Of course, in general terms, I would welcome that, but is there not a worry that we would end up with a postcode lottery of provision in terms of the mental health support woven through schools? Areas such as Warrington would have fantastic things available for our young people, but children in towns in the surrounding area would still have issues that we could really be stepping in to address.

The senior mental health lead training that I talked about is a nationwide offer—I am talking about England, because, as hon. Members know, education is devolved. I was just about to talk about mental health support teams, which will similarly be a nationwide offer. It is a gradual roll-out. I think it is possible to combine having a nationwide approach with tailoring to one’s particular circumstances. We are continuing to roll out the mental health support teams to schools, and also to colleges. They will deliver evidence-based interventions for mild to moderate mental health issues and will support the mental health leads with their whole-school approach. As of April last year, the support teams covered a little more than a third of our schools, with a little more than a third of pupils in the country. That number continues to grow; the coverage should extend to at least half of pupils by March 2025.

The hon. Member for Warrington North rightly mentioned the wellbeing of staff, which is an important subject, and the Government take it very seriously. At the start of this year, we announced £1.5 million of new investment to deliver a three-year mental health and wellbeing support package for school and college leaders. That was in addition to the just over £1 million already invested in the current support package.

More broadly, we have worked in partnership with the education sector and with mental health experts to develop the education staff wellbeing charter, which sets out commitments from my Department, Ofsted and schools and colleges on actions to improve staff wellbeing. In January, we published an update showing the significant progress made on our pledges. I would simply echo what the hon. Member for Warrington said, which is that taking part in mindfulness in certain circumstances can also have a benefit for teachers and leaders in schools.

I am enormously grateful to the hon. Lady for raising the potential of mindfulness in schools—Mr Gray, you have been gracious and generous in allowing us to move into some adjacent but clearly related areas that it is important to discuss—and the Government agree with her that mindfulness is one of the tools that can support wellbeing in school. Our approach of building the evidence base, including through the extensive trials I talked about, and supporting schools to make effective decisions on their provision will ensure that such opportunities are acted on.

I thank all the Members who contributed, with four political parties represented in the debate. I particularly thank the hon. Members for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for their thoughtful contributions. The hon. Member for Strangford referred to adult burdens on children’s shoulders—perhaps the most apt way I have heard this issue summed up—in highlighting the need for children to be given greater tools to cope. Dealing with this issue is our responsibility as legislators.

Many of us recall early childhood as a time when we were more fully there and present in mind and body in the moments of our lives. We had heightened senses, we were more open-minded, we were more accepting of new experiences and of others unlike ourselves, and we were more curious and more creative. Sadly, most of us tend to lose that innate capacity as we get older and in the face of growing demands and worries, competing pressures and the daily grind. Introducing mindfulness practice in schools can provide an opportunity to value, preserve, nurture and sustain those life-affirming states of mind in children, while enabling adults to partly reclaim them. I hope we can continue this conversation beyond today and use the example of what we are doing in Warrington to improve mental health for all our young people. I again thank all those who have taken part.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered mindfulness in schools.

Sitting suspended.