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21 Jan, 2021 18:52

500,000 more kids face mental health issues as they’re denied school, vaccines, friends and holidays. We’re betraying a generation

500,000 more kids face mental health issues as they’re denied school, vaccines, friends and holidays. We’re betraying a generation

British children suffer record levels of depression in our Covid lockdown, with suicidal thoughts, self-harm and eating disorders surging. With schools unlikely to reopen until April, it’s not just their education that’s at risk.

Watching my daughter fight the fidgets as she takes part in her latest Google Classroom call with a remote teacher and fellow pupils, I haven’t the nerve to tell her that the promised return to school straight after February half-term ain’t gonna happen.

Because Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said today that while schools in England would be given two weeks’ notice before they were expected to open, he couldn’t say when that would be, kicking into touch PM Boris Johnson’s pledge of a February return at last month’s address to the UK.

It would have been better had Williamson kept his trap shut and let us all believe that hope was on the horizon.

For when I do inform my daughter that it looks like she won’t be back in class until April, once the Easter break has ended, not only will I have crushed her hopes of reacquainting with her friends face-to-face in a matter of weeks, she’ll demand to know “What’s the point?” with continuing this farcical, fractured and frustrating final year of her primary school education. And I have no idea what to tell her.

Any parent of school-age kids will know how I feel. The desperate grasping at ideas to motivate our children, to help them engage with their learning and to keep their chins up is becoming more and more difficult as the government slams shut one door after another on our hopes of a return to normality. Kids face no school, desperately needed holidays are on hold until probably next year, and they are last in line for a vaccine. That’s a pretty bum deal.

And the cracks are starting to show. With teachers urged to deliver three to five hours of schoolwork each day, keeping kids’ spirits buoyant has become just as difficult as understanding their maths lessons.

The gloom is infectious, as a study out today from the Universities of Birmingham and Oxford confirmed. Formerly freewheeling, high-spirited online chats have morphed into muted complaints and low moods as the novelty of school in the kitchen wore off long ago. The wide, everchanging schoolyard social networks of our children have disappeared, replaced by social contact with whoever happens to be online at the same time they are. Boredom encourages bickering and the subtleties of personal relationships are forced to rely on broadband speed, What’s App chat emojis and access to a shared computer.

It is not healthy in any way. We now risk destroying our children’s love of learning while creating a mental health crisis that has struck half a million previously healthy kids across the nation already, according to the Centre for Mental Health.

It says 500,000 children under 18 in England, with no previous problems, will need mental health care due to the devastating economic, health and family pressures caused by the ongoing coronavirus crisis. This has manifested itself in children as young as five reporting self-harm and suicidal thoughts to counsellors and a tripling in the number of eating disorders reported by adolescents.

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An Ofsted report in November discovered that more than two months of lost schooling last spring had resulted in children regressing in basic skills such as reading and writing. And –as always– it is the poor who suffer worst. It’s estimated 1.1m kids have no computer at home, making attending online lessons impossible. The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that, in the last lockdown, better-off children spent 30 per cent more time on remote learning than disadvantaged ones. The attainment gap between rich and poor pupils will grow markedly.

A survey by England’s Mental Health of Children and Young People survey found that more than a quarter of children aged five to 16 reported disrupted sleep, one in five did not have somewhere quiet to work, and girls had the highest prevalence (27.2 per cent) of probable mental health issues. 

This is all shocking news.

Our children are facing serious problems with their mental health in numbers never seen before and yet with no end date in sight they are expected to sit in front of a screen five hours a day, five days a week. It’s not helping, and it is clear that keeping schools shut is doing immense and lasting damage to our children.

I remember my final year of primary education. A great age, the discovery of girls, a king of the playground, the mixture of fear and excitement at soon going to a high school and the dawning of a real sense that I was responsible for my future. I loved it.

Suicide, eating disorders or self-harm never came up. Not because such angst didn’t exist, because most likely it did for some, but certainly not among my gang of pals. So to see these extreme psychological issues in so many children of my daughter’s generation breaks my heart.

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So does the understanding that they have had a full year gutted from their education at a time when every adult they know enforces the importance of school. This a betrayal of our children and of everything we have told them about preparing for adulthood.

Many parents place increasingly high expectations upon their kids and now we have hamstrung those children and their chances of ever reaching those ideals by denying them a full and proper education. We’re asking someone to bang in a nail but have taken away their hammer.

Meanwhile, the government is floundering over what to do about re-opening classrooms to all, making up for lost lessons, sorting out a fair compromise for missed examinations and ensuring that opportunity does not pass by thousands of British schoolchildren.

A crisis is upon us, one that will cause long-term problems. While schools will eventually reopen, our children, their education and now –shockingly– their mental health will be paying the price of government uncertainty, inaction and incompetence for years, probably decades, to come.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.