Two-thirds of disadvantaged pupils have fallen behind in pandemic, frontline workers report

Two-thirds of disadvantaged children are believed to have fallen behind in their education during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a survey of more than 650 frontline workers.

A growing mental health crisis among children must be addressed if the education gap is to be closed, Buttle UK has warned.

The charity, which provides grants to children and young people in crisis, said on average 10% more children are estimated by professionals to be experiencing mental health problems compared to 2020.

It also says more children are now experiencing difficulties in their relationships with their parents, siblings and school peers.

The charity surveyed 669 UK-wide frontline workers from social services, education, housing and health agencies, who support around 36,000 children, between June 22 and July 15.

The most common problems experienced among the children they were working with were mental illness in the family, domestic abuse and parental separation.

All common adverse experiences had been worsened by the pandemic, they said, due to a lack of support from family and friends, reduced school monitoring, less exercise, poorer diets and increased isolation.

They estimate on average that 61% of children they work with are experiencing mental health problems – up from 51% in 2020.

Almost three-quarters (73%) of those surveyed said they have seen children struggle with peer relationships since going back to school, while 91% have seen youngsters struggle with overcoming trauma.

On average, the professionals said half of children struggle to engage with education and two-thirds have fallen behind on their education, due to a lack of digital access and challenges in overcoming trauma bought on by the pandemic.

Frontline workers report that 10% more families are struggling to afford the internet, and 19% more are struggling to afford IT equipment, compared to 2020.

Almost half of the frontline workers said the most important form of assistance will be mental health support, while just 9% said educational support was the most important.

The report concludes: “These issues – along with their lack of digital access – are seen by support workers as the main drivers for children falling further behind in their education compared to their more affluent peers.

“These frontline professionals overwhelmingly believe that the most urgent issue for such children is to address their mental health issues.

“If we are to close the education gap, we must listen to these professionals and consider how this support can form part of the national recovery plans from the crisis.”

Buttle UK has helped nearly 9,000 children and young people since the start of the pandemic, providing £6.8 million in grants to help families with essentials such as clothes, beds and IT equipment.

It said application rates were 68% higher in 2020/21 than in the previous year.

Chief executive Joseph Howes said educational catch-up programmes will push the mainstream forward and leave vulnerable children behind if their traumatic experiences are overlooked.

He said: “The Government’s response to a year of disrupted schooling seems to have been created with children’s stability in the home as a given, and that all is needed is more time to catch up on what was previously lost academically.

“This is simply the worst way of looking at it for the most vulnerable children, who will need a different kind of support to get back to the starting line.

“These children have faced traumatic episodes compounded by the events of the last 18 months. If the assumption is that they can put all of that aside, and just focus on academic achievement, it’s asking for the impossible.”

A Government spokesperson said: “We know the past year has been incredibly difficult for many children and young people, who have faced additional challenges and anxieties.

“We are prioritising the wellbeing of children and young people, backed by more than £17 million to build on the mental health support currently available in schools. This includes our £15 million Wellbeing for Education Recovery and Return programmes, which are helping education staff respond to pressures by providing training and resources to staff so that they can support students experiencing trauma, anxiety, or grief.

“We are also investing £3 billion to boost learning, including £950 million in additional funding for schools which they can use as they see best to support their pupils, including for mental health and wellbeing.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of NAHT, said: “The Prime Minister’s promise that no child would be left behind due to learning lost during the pandemic now needs to be delivered.

“Schools will need a radically more ambitious package of investment from the Treasury in order to get the job done.”

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