Covid has put wellbeing in schools front and centre
The school shutdowns during the Covid pandemic may feel like a distant memory. But the effects of this period are still being felt in schools today — and pupil wellbeing is one of the biggest casualties, as explored recently by Dr Caron Carter on this SIOE blog. Caron examined how the lockdowns affected children’s social and emotional lives – including by limiting opportunities for play and friendship. Her piece concluded with some practical strategies for adults working to boost children’s wellbeing post-pandemic.
Here, we come at the topic from a different perspective to complement Caron’s insights. We were commissioned by the Department for Education (DfE), along with Ipsos UK and CfEY to explore how schools in England were recovering from the effects of the pandemic. The findings are published in the School Recovery Strategies report.
The research spanned two academic years, from 2020-2022. We conducted in-depth interviews with senior leaders in primary and secondary schools in England, most recently in summer 2022. Along with Ipsos survey data from over 1,750 schools, the results paint a stark picture, notwithstanding some green shoots of recovery.
When we were commissioned by the DfE to study schools’ recovery, the government’s focus was on children’s academic performance and catch-up. But the more we spoke to school leaders, we realised that pupils’ psychological wellbeing was a top priority.
As we know, wellbeing is important in itself, but it’s also foundational to academic performance. As one leader said, ‘For us it [is] about wellbeing first. That has to come first.’
In our conversations with leaders, we were struck by the range of emotional, behavioural and wellbeing challenges faced by pupils, and the gravity of some of the examples. Anxiety was commonplace among pupils, and for some it continues to be so severe that they cannot attend school – contributing to the high rates of persistent absenteeism. One secondary leader told us:
‘Parents [say] “We’re trying our hardest to get these kids to move but they won’t come out of their bedroom and they’re just sitting in the house all day…” They’ve had so much time at home that I think that had a massive impact on what they can and can’t do… We’ve offered every single one of those [a range of measures to support return], and we’re finding that it’s very, very hard to get them back to school.’
Eating disorders and self-harm by pupils were also on the increase. One secondary head said:
‘The anxiety and self-harming is through the roof… Not a day goes by that we don’t take sharp objects off these children.’
Evidence of more subtle (but significant) impacts on wellbeing for learning also emerged. Leaders reported that pupils were less able to sustain concentration, struggled to bounce back after disappointments, and were giving up more readily than before the pandemic. This was hindering academic recovery, especially for the most disadvantaged pupils.
In younger year groups, maturity levels were lagging behind age-norms, affecting social development and readiness for learning. A secondary head illustrated the point:
“Mindset and behaviour in KS3 – [they’re] still very primary in the way that they behave in the playground. Taking each other’s ties, moving a seat when someone is about to sit down, that kind of thing. Babyish behaviour.”
Leaders attributed these delays, in part, to missed transition activities and social interactions during lockdowns, and to class ‘bubbles’ at school, limiting exposure to older role models.
Will it take a generation to recover?
We asked leaders how long they thought recovery would take. Some estimated that pupils will need at least three years to bounce back; others predicted that children would feel the impacts throughout their school careers and beyond. One secondary leader said: “Thinking from primary through to secondary, it’s going to take a generation.”
Systemic factors are slowing down that recovery. As more pupils are presenting with increasingly complex needs, delays in assessment and appropriate support are additional barriers. Leaders called for more funding for SEND, improved access to external agencies such as CAMHS and counselling services, and better training for staff to support pupils with mental health issues.
Adding to the crisis…
The pandemic affected staff wellbeing too. School staff worked incredibly hard across a tumultuous period, often beyond their education remit, to provide frontline support for families in the absence of other services. Staff felt increasingly demoralised and frustrated by policy responses and underfunding. No surprise that schools are struggling to retain and recruit staff and are now resorting to strike action.
Finally, the cost-of-living crisis cannot be ignored. It is exacerbating the pandemic’s effects, particularly for growing numbers of vulnerable pupils, but without a similar scale of recovery funding. Ever-increasing pressures on budgets meant that leaders were anticipating significant cuts and sacrifices, including reducing their teaching assistant workforce — the very people tasked with delivering recovery interventions. We also heard of pupils absent from school because their parents could no longer afford to drive them. Since then, the financial stress on many families has risen dramatically. Hunger and poverty are further damaging pupils’ learning.
Our report is a snapshot of a school system in crisis. Leaders expressed gratitude for the government’s recovery funds and tutoring schemes, but most stressed that it was nowhere near enough. Better funding was urgently needed to support long-term wellbeing and academic recovery. Accountability measures like Ofsted and the exam system should reflect the pandemic’s sustained impacts. Although many leaders felt that a huge opportunity to reset education has been lost, let’s at least ensure that wellbeing is kept at the front and centre of teaching and learning.
Bernadette Stiell and Ben Willis are both Senior Research Fellows in the Sheffield Institute of Education Research and Knowledge Exchange (SIRKE). The authors would like to thank Lisa Clarkson and Rhys Edwards for their valuable input.