Schools cutting mental health services to plug funding gaps, warn MPs

Girl on her way home from school

The MPs said in their report that more than half of all mental ill health starts before the age of 15. Photograph: Alamy

Cash-strapped schools are cutting mental health services such as counsellors and pastoral provision as they try to cover funding gaps, two influential groups of MPs have said.


The health and education select committees joined forces for the inquiry, which called on the government to look at the impact of budget cuts on mental health services for children.


Services to support wellbeing are “the first thing to go” when budgets are under pressure, the inquiry heard. The government announced £1.25bn in additional funding for young people’s mental health in 2015, but almost 80% of primary school headteachers responding to a survey said a lack of money prevented them from providing mental health support in schools such as counsellors.


The MPs wrote: “We know that more than half of all mental ill health starts before the age of 15 and it is therefore a false economy to cut services for children and young people.”


There are “unacceptable” variations in the level of access children have to mental health services because some parts of the country lack strong links between schools and mental health providers, the inquiry found.


The education minister, Edward Timpson, told the inquiry a pilot scheme increasing collaboration between schools and mental health services was being expanded to 1,200 more schools. The MPs called on the government to “commit resources to establish partnerships with mental health services across all schools and colleges”.


The issue of social media was of particular concern for the inquiry, which found that it could help and harm young people’s mental wellbeing. Witnesses told the inquiry that young people tended to contact support services such as Childline on the internet rather than by phone, and social media could help connect young people, especially those with rare conditions, to supportive communities. But cyberbullying and sleep deprivation due to late-night screen use concerned witnesses to the inquiry.


Schools should teach pupils how to make sensible decisions around social media, the inquiry determined, as part of equipping them for the modern world. But they should also teach parents about social media, especially about its impact and that of screen time more generally on children’s sleep.

“Parents have a key role to play in limiting screen time, reducing sleep deprivation and preventing exposure to harmful online activity,” the MPs wrote.


Ofsted inspections could play a key role in raising the importance of mental health and wellbeing in schools, the MPs said, but witnesses said thewatchdog was too focused on academic achievement, with only one-third of Ofsted reports specifically referring to the mental health and wellbeing of pupils. The report called on Ofsted’s chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, who took over in January, to look at ways of making mental wellbeing more prominent “as a matter of priority”.


An Ofsted spokeswoman said: “Personal development, behaviour and welfare of pupils is one of our key judgments in school inspections and is graded in every section five inspection. As part of this, inspectors already evaluate the experience and wellbeing of particular individuals and groups of pupils, including those with mental health needs.


“Ofsted has also started discussions with the CQC [Care Quality Commission] about some future joint survey work in relation to the government’s proposals to transform mental health support for children and young people.”


Sarah Brennan, the chief executive of mental health charity YoungMinds, said: “We are facing a mental health crisis in our classrooms and it is vital that the next government rebalances the education system to ensure that the wellbeing of children is as important as academic achievement in schools.


“Many schools are doing excellent work to promote good mental health. But funding constraints, coupled with a lack of prominence given to wellbeing in the Ofsted inspection framework, mean that when schools face tough decisions about which services to cut, they are under pressure to prioritise other areas.


“At a time when rates of self-harm are rising sharply, and when specialist mental health services are overwhelmed, this cannot be right.”

Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat MP and mental health campaigner, said children and young people were being “shortchanged”.

“It is scandalous that much of the additional funding for children’s mental health secured by the Liberal Democrats in 2015 is not getting through,” he said.

“Until the government commits to providing more long-term funding for health and social care, this mental health crisis will not be tackled.”