Skip to main content

Children: Bereavement Support in Schools

Volume 827: debated on Monday 6 February 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the adequacy of support for bereaved children in schools.

My Lords, losing a loved one is a devastating loss for any child. Schools can play an essential role in supporting a pupil through grief and preventing longer-term emotional distress by providing effective pastoral support and ensuring there is a supportive school culture. It is for individual schools to decide what pastoral support each pupil needs. We have invested £10 million in senior mental health leads training to help schools put informed support in place, drawing on specialists and working with families as needed.

I thank the Minister for that helpful and sympathetic reply. There is clearly a lot of good practice. But recent research has found that bereavement support in primary schools is varied and inconsistent. My own family experience reinforces that. There are long waiting times for counselling, and how schools deal with anticipatory grief is particularly neglected. One in every 29 children will be bereaved of a parent: that is one in every classroom. The research shows that teachers and schools are crying out for guidance and training. Is it not time for DfE to have national bereavement policy, including a mandatory requirement for each school to have such a policy? Will the Minister agree to meet the Ruth Strauss Foundation and other charities who are doing such formative work on this issue?

The noble Baroness will be aware that there is a cross-government bereavement working group. This issue, as the noble Baroness understands well, cuts across both education and health, as well as other government departments—hence our cross-government group. I would be delighted to meet with the Ruth Strauss Foundation and hear about its work. This is something we take extremely seriously, hence our focus on ensuring that schools provide a truly compassionate culture for whatever is going on for the children within them.

One hundred children every day are bereaved of a parent. From my own experience, I remember my two nephews losing their dad when they were seven and nine. There was little to no support from their primary school, and that is quite endemic to the problem we now face. Would the Minister agree that we need, as we have heard, every school to have a policy on bereavement, staff to have training on bereavement and, thirdly, a commitment to every school having full-time or part-time professional mental health support in the school?

I am sorry to hear of the noble Lord’s nephews’ personal experience of this. Of course, many of us in this House have been touched in different ways by the issues raised by the noble Baroness’s Question. The Government are doing many of the things the noble Lord points to. I mentioned training; every state school is being offered a grant, as are colleges, to train a senior mental health lead so that we have an effective response to these issues. Of course, education staff are not mental health staff in general, and nor are they bereavement or trauma specialists, but they are very well placed to observe the behaviour of children day to day and respond to that.

Are the improvements to training to which my noble friend referred being overseen by officials at the highest level, with just the right kind of approach to these deeply sensitive and important matters?

I am happy to share with my noble friend in a letter more detail of the training, but it is something the department takes extremely seriously.

My Lords, when I was still teaching, I was privileged to be able to attend bereavement training in order to be able to deal with that in primary schools—although I was part of a peripatetic team rather than attached to an individual school. Can the Minister say whether she believes that, actually, there is a need for peripatetic teams? Not all teachers will be able to be trained to the same level and, increasingly, they are trained in schools where the training might be of a variable standard.

I do not think we would want to be prescriptive about peripatetic teams. The point the noble Baroness makes is that schools need to be aware of what resources are available in their communities to support a range of issues, including bereavement. Your Lordships have focused a lot, rightly, on primary school, but I should add that the department is extending the early years professional development programme, with the aim of reaching up to 10,000 early years practitioners. That includes a module developed in partnership with the Anna Freud Centre, which allows them to identify acute stress and trauma in the children in their care.

My Lords, would my noble friend agree that every case will be different as to how this comes about? While certain guidelines from the centre would be useful, it is absolutely essential that there is no straitjacket for how schools feel they should act on this particular subject, and that there is discretion allowed, so that head teachers and teachers can best judge how to approach each individual case, which will not be identical.

My noble friend is spot on and has probably put the Government’s position rather more eloquently than I have. It is critical that the school creates a culture where children feel able to talk about what has happened to them and what their feelings are, and that it can use its discretion and judgment in responding to that and accessing specialist resources. The Government are supporting this through our work, and signposting to the Childhood Bereavement Network, Hope Again and a wide range of other resources.

My Lords, the Church of England educates over 1 million children in its schools and has produced highly accessible guidance and training for its school leaders on supporting students and families through grief, bereavement and loss. Recognising in particular the barriers to learning and flourishing that trauma may cause, would the Minister meet with the Church of England’s education team to see whether these outstanding resources could in fact help other students, teachers and families across the country?

My Lords, as the Minister will know, the Government’s £8 million Wellbeing for Education Return training programme was launched in 2020, with the aim of helping children to process the impacts of the pandemic. What is the Government’s assessment of equality of access to this programme between deprived and affluent areas across the United Kingdom?

I do not have the breakdown that the noble Baroness refers to. She referred to the 2020 return programme, which was followed by the recovery programme in 2021. Looking at those two years, I am aware that 14,000 schools and colleges, out of roughly 22,000 nationally, got those resources.

My Lords, the Minister well understands that teachers are faced with a range of very human situations. Could she use her good offices to ensure that Ofsted inspections place an emphasis not just on learning but on the pastoral responsibilities that schools have, particularly in these very emotionally disturbing situations?

I hear what the noble Lord says. I am slightly surprised, because I think there has been a real focus by Ofsted on safeguarding in its broadest sense and the important pastoral role that schools provide—but I will, of course, take what he says back.

My Lords, the noble Baroness’s answers, and indeed the questions, have focused, understandably, on the impact on individual bereaved children. What is the Government’s view of the impact on the classes of which those children are part? Very often, the distress exhibited by one child can be transmitted to others, who often do not fully understand what they are witnessing and sometimes have great difficulty in managing it.

The noble Baroness makes a good point. Indeed, in thinking about this, I was also thinking about situations which affect the whole class—for example, where a member of the class tragically is killed. The very valid point she raised also affects teachers, not just pupils. I come back to the fact that schools need to implement a strong, pastoral approach across their school community, balancing their own insight and the relationships and trust they have with pupils and colleagues with the resources in their local community and the national resources that we signpost and provide.