Forty-eight per cent of education professionals say pupils in their school have self-harmed due to stress, according to a survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL).
Forty-three per cent said students suffered from eating disorders, and 20% of staff surveyed said pupils have attempted suicide because of the pressure they are under.
A member of support staff at a secondary academy in London said: ‘I have seen a huge increase in physical symptoms of stress and incidents of self-harm, and suicidal thoughts have escalated beyond control.’
A school counsellor at an independent school in Warwickshire said: ‘I feel angry on our young people’s behalf. Our young people seem to be on this constant treadmill of achievement, spending hours linked to a computer, endlessly being ‘organised’. If they’re outside, it’s only for ‘sport’. They have no freedom. It’s not surprising they’re getting increasingly mentally ill.’
Eighty-eight per cent of those surveyed said that pressure on pupils causes low self-esteem, 84% said young people appeared anxious, 81% said students lacked motivation, and 78% said children struggled to concentrate due to the stress placed on them. Eighty-nine per cent of education staff considered testing and exams to be the greatest cause of pupil stress.
This was echoed by Samantha Barlow, a learning mentor at a Manchester primary school, who said: ‘The Government and authorities are solely interested in levels and grades and have put a lot of pressure on children as young as six years old to become anxious about exams.’
Seventy-nine per cent of school staff personally support pupils with emotional or mental health issues at least once a week, with over a third (36%) supporting pupils more than once a day.
A teacher at a secondary school in Surrey said: ‘A few students come to me quite regularly for support – sometimes just to have a chat, sometimes for a place to sit quietly, sometimes for encouragement to get on with their day … I worry that I don’t have enough time to spend on the things I should be doing because time is so short.’
Twenty-one per cent of those surveyed said their school had no access to a counsellor to support pupils, and although 61% said that their school had a counsellor or access to a counsellor, many reported that they were over-stretched. As a result, education staff are frequently shouldering the responsibility of supporting young people, with 27% stating that they struggle to provide the support required by pupils alongside their other duties and 39% finding it occasionally difficult to provide support.
Support offered by schools for young people with emotional or mental health issues varied considerably. Thirteen per cent of schools do not have a policy or strategy to identify and help pupils with emotional, mental health or behavioural issues. Eighty per cent said the support provided by their school included referral to external support eg Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), GP, helplines etc, 54% said support included a dedicated member of the pastoral team and 49% of members said their school offered group sessions for young people, for example in social skills, self-esteem and anger management.
A head of year at an independent secondary school in Surrey said that it offered: ”Well-being week’, as well as regular ‘well-being’ initiatives such as walks, movie time, yoga classes and meditation.’
ATL general secretary, Dr Mary Bousted, said: ‘It is horrifying that young people feel under so much pressure that many are self-harming and contemplating suicide. Education staff are increasingly trying to fill a gap left by drastic cuts to services such as CAMHS.
‘The Government bears responsibility for much of this stress which appears to stem from a test-focused, over-crowded curriculum. ATL believes that the Government’s one-size-fits-all approach to school and exams disengages and fails many students.
‘Children are not just statistics, but individuals with different strengths, interests and needs. Politicians also miss the point that children perform better if they are supported and feel safe, and with young people spending a huge proportion of their time in school, it is vital that we create environments to support their emotional well-being and mental health.
‘ATL wants all schools to have access to trained professionals to support pupils, and an education system which motivates and engages learners, instead of one which causes many young people to feel under constant pressure.’