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Schools (Mental Health Professionals)

Volume 743: debated on Tuesday 9 January 2024

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision to require every school to have access to a qualified mental health professional; and for connected purposes.

Mr Speaker,

“He used to be such a lovely happy little boy and now he’s so sad. I’m terrified for his future. All I’ve ever wanted was to help my son and I’ve failed and fallen at every hurdle.”

Those are the anguished words of a constituent of mine who is mother to a nine-year-old. Week in and week out, I speak to parents whose children are struggling with their mental health and struggling to access appropriate support. When I speak to headteachers, they tell me that some of the most pressing challenges facing our education system come from outside the classroom, and mental health is among the biggest. Teachers often feel as though they are the fourth emergency service, filling the gap left by under-resourced services across the country.

Let us be clear: mental health services for young people before the pandemic were inadequate. Since the pandemic, despite the best efforts of everyone working in the sector, services are on their knees. The current generation of children have had to contend not only with rising pressures and judgments brought by social media, but with the huge consequences of a global pandemic. It is unsurprising that such challenges have taken their toll on children’s and young people’s mental health.

It is estimated that one in five children between the ages of seven and 16 has a probable mental health disorder. If six children in every classroom were diagnosed with a physical condition such as diabetes, there would rightly be a public outcry, and there would be no discussion about urgently putting both proper treatment and preventive measures in place. We would just do it. Mental health is no different and should not be treated any differently.

We must do everything in our power to ensure that every child arrives at school happy, healthy and ready to learn and thrive. My Bill provides one of the tools to help to achieve that. It would place a dedicated qualified mental health practitioner in every school—primary and secondary—giving every child in school access to care and support from the moment they start to need it.

Early intervention is crucial. Research tells us that half of all lifetime mental health disorders start before the age of 14. Stepping in as soon as warning signs start to show can often help to prevent conditions from becoming more severe. When Nicole, now aged 19, was struggling with her mental health, she had to wait a very long time before she could access any support. Describing that time, she said:

“Waiting for suitable mental health support meant that my whole life felt like it was paused and erased…I was left without suitable support and my mental health left to deteriorate.”

This story is not unique, nor is it unusual. I know that colleagues across the Chamber are aware of many similar stories in their own constituencies.

The state of our children and young people’s mental health is a significant and urgent challenge facing our country and, frankly, this Government are not taking it seriously enough. In December 2021, the Health and Social Care Committee warned that the combination of unmet need before the pandemic and additional needs created by the pandemic were significant. It said that the Government’s plans

“are simply not sufficient for the task at hand.”

In the two years since, there is no indication that their approach has improved. Last month, when I asked the mental health Minister, the hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), in a written question what proportion of mental health funding had been allocated to children and young people, I received an answer that such funds are not “separately identifiable.” How can a Government begin to take a problem seriously when they do not even know how much money they are spending on it?

Sadly, in the eyes of the Treasury children and young people are too often seen as a financial burden and a drain on Government resources, and that is just wrong. Spending on education and services to support our children is an investment in their future and our country’s future, and it is time that the Government recognised that.

The introduction of mental health support teams has been an encouraging step forward, but they are under-resourced and overstretched. Last year, I visited Carshalton Boys Sports College. I met MHST staff as well as some of the pupils they were supporting. The boys talked about how the team had helped them to learn coping techniques for anxiety and how to identify the techniques that work for them. The staff mentioned how important it was that they could intervene early before things escalate and children need other services, such as child and adolescent mental health services, but what struck me was that the team was stretched thinly across many local primary and secondary schools, which meant that their valuable skills and service were available only for half a day to one day per week in each school.

Furthermore, research by the Liberal Democrats revealed that by the end of this year half of secondary schools and three quarters of all primary schools in England will still have no access at all to mental health support teams. Instead, the role of supporting children’s mental ill health falls on teachers, who are already managing a heavy workload at the same time as contending with extremely overstretched budgets. With many schools struggling to afford the basics, sadly some of those that have found their own money for mental health support are being forced to cut back, which is why schools must not have to fund the provision themselves.

My Bill makes it clear that funding needs to be made available for the proposed statutory duty for all state schools. Using the “polluter pays” principle, Liberal Democrats have proposed funding mental health practitioners through tripling the digital services tax on our big social media companies, given the harm that they have contributed to our children’s mental health.

A big challenge currently facing schools is persistent absence, with the most recent Government data revealing that a fifth of children missed on average a day of school every fortnight last term. One of the most significant causal factors of absence is mental ill health. According to new data from YoungMinds, more than one in five children waiting for mental health support has missed more than six months of school.

Absence has a huge impact on a child’s education and ultimately their prospects. Three quarters of these children said that they had stopped exercising, doing hobbies and even seeing friends. These children should be carefree, enjoying themselves and spending time with loved ones; instead, their lives are being put on hold and their life chances being diminished because they cannot access the support they have so bravely asked for.

Just last week I heard of a pupil at a school in my constituency who is stuck in exactly that limbo. Despite desperately needing mental health support, they are stuck on a long CAMHS waiting list. In the meantime, not only has the child stopped attending school, but their mother said that they have not left the house in more than four months. A teacher at the school told me that they strongly believe that had there been the possibility of seeing a mental health professional at school on a regular basis, that pupil would still be attending school. Instead, their mental health is rapidly deteriorating, leaving those around them worried sick. Sadly, this is not uncommon—alarmingly, the headteacher of this pupil told me that it was just one example of many.

There is a tidal wave of mental ill health among our children and young people, which is jeopardising their wellbeing, education, prospects, and long-term health. A report commissioned by the Local Government Association, and undertaken by the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition, asserted that there is

“a missed opportunity to significantly ease pressure on the system by increasing the availability of preventative and early intervention support.”

That is exactly what putting a mental health practitioner in every school would do. It would make mental health support accessible to every pupil, regardless of their age, where they live or their background. It would save our NHS money in the long term by tackling issues before they become more severe, and it would ensure that children’s mental health is supported early on, giving them the tools they need to be resilient and thrive into adulthood.

The Bill is an investment in our future and one that we must make, not just because it is sensible but because we owe it to this generation of children and young people—a generation that so often feels let down and neglected. I would like to end by thanking the young people, parents and teachers who have shared their stories with me, as well as the organisations that have supported me with the Bill, including YoungMinds, the Centre for Mental Health, Barnardo’s, Place2Be, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy and the Sutton Trust. They are all dedicated to ensuring that every child has the right support in their time of need. The Bill would be a significant step towards achieving that.

Question put and agreed to.


That Munira Wilson, Ed Davey, Daisy Cooper, Helen Morgan, Layla Moran, Sarah Dyke, Richard Foord, Sarah Green, Sarah Olney, Tim Farron and Wera Hobhouse present the Bill.

Munira Wilson accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 21 June, and to be printed (Bill 75).