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Schools struggle to know what type of mental health support is needed for pupils

Publication date: February 9, 2018

For Children’s Mental Health Week this week, we partnered with Place2BeNAHT and BACP to publish a new report showing that:

  • almost half of school leaders have found it difficult to commission mental health support for their pupils
  • over a third of counsellors and psychotherapists who work with children and young people said it was difficult to provide their services to schools.

You can download the full report here.

The research, based on responses from 655 school leaders and 1,198 counsellors and psychotherapists, provides a picture of the challenges faced by schools and school-based mental health professionals. 44 per cent of school respondents said “knowing what type of support is needed” is a barrier to providing mental health support for pupils, and 37 per cent said they don’t feel confident in commissioning a counsellor or therapist.

Similarly, the counsellors and psychotherapists currently working in schools said that common difficulties faced were “schools’ understanding of counselling and psychotherapy for children” (57 per cent), followed by “expectations not being clear” (30 per cent). For both schools and therapists, a lack of funding remains the most common barrier to providing support. These barriers are of critical concern as evidence shows at least 50% of mental health problems in adults are established by the age of 14.

The Government’s recently published green paper on ‘Transforming children and young people’s mental health provision’ recognised the “vital role” that schools can play in identifying and supporting young people experiencing problems.

However, its proposals did not include any additional funding for the majority of schools, and proposed new ‘Mental Health Support Teams’ could only reach a quarter of the country by the end of 2022/23, running the risk of greater inequality for young people.

Prof Sarah Niblock, Chief Executive of the UK Council for Psychotherapy, said:

‘Urgent steps must be taken to bridge this gap given that 50 per cent of mental health problems in adults are established by 14 and 75 per cent by 24. We need a senior professional therapist in every school, able to carry out individual assessments of clinical need, and to develop and oversee an organisation-wide culture capable of supporting children’s and adults’, including teachers and parents’ emotional and mental health – individually, in groups, families, classes and whole-school.’

You can watch UKCP psychotherapist Vanessa McHardy explaining the crisis in children’s mental health provision here.


Catherine Roche, Chief Executive of Place2Be said:

‘School leaders are already under immense pressure to deliver academic progress – and we shouldn’t expect them to become mental health experts as well. Our evidence and experience shows that embedding skilled mental health professionals in schools, as part of a whole school approach, can have an enormously positive impact for pupils, families and staff. It’s encouraging that the Government’s green paper proposals have recognised this, but to really transform children’s mental health provision, we need all schools to have access to dedicated funding, support and training to be able to source, commission and evaluate services effectively.’

One school leader who responded to the survey said: ‘I don’t think schools have anything like the awareness needed to choose appropriate styles of therapy.’

A psychotherapist working with children and young people added: “I think schools need a better understanding of how counselling and psychotherapy can help not only the children, but the school as a whole.’

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union, NAHT, said:

‘Schools have always been on the front line with children’s mental health because school is often where issues first become apparent. This is why a significant number of schools choose to commission counsellors and psychotherapists themselves. However, school leaders are not experts in therapeutic interventions so it can be difficult to know what kind of support is needed. NAHT has continually argued for a more rounded approach, to take some of the emphasis away from schools and re-assert the importance of well-resourced and accessible local support services.’

Dr Andrew Reeves, chair of British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) said: 

‘It is clear from these results that although school leaders can see the benefits of school-based counselling as an early intervention in reducing psychological distress; many feel that they need more guidance in recruiting the right mental health support in their schools. The benefits of school counselling are well established, but we must enable school leaders with the information and funding to be able to recruit counsellors and be confident that they have the right training, skills and knowledge to work with children and young people. BACP has a competence framework for working with 11-18s, with one for 4-10s in development, and these are one way of demonstrating a counsellor’s ability.’