In this month's Khulisa Voice column, our Director of Fundraising and Operations, Ellie Johnson-Shaw, writes a reflective blog on her experience of school closures as a parent arguing that we cannot expect improved educational attainment on the part of young people, after lockdown, unless critically needed measures are put in place to help improve their emotional wellbeing.
The indefinite closure of my daughter’s school felt like a sinkhole had just appeared in the middle of our world. The sense of loss the community expressed when it first closed in March was widely shared. Our headteacher, a tall, revered and much-loved northerner, stood in the playground and shed tears. We did too. We’re parents of Year 6 students and their time in this safe and nurturing learning environment was abruptly and unceremoniously coming to an end.
We’re lucky. It’s a school that understands that wellbeing is the foundation of a child’s ability to learn. I’ve lost count of the number of times the teachers or support staff have provided us guidance in overcoming a period which for both myself and my daughter, left deep scars. As a single mother newly arrived in London in 2014, leaving behind a harrowing decade spanning my late teens and twenties, the school filled a gap in my daughter’s life, and in mine too. They provided routine and learning, but they also shared an authentic, consistent culture of kindness, community, and much needed pastoral care which has guided her, and me, through recovery from turbulence we experienced early on.
The anxiety I felt for my daughter back then was overwhelming and alongside the other pressures which come with lone parenting, I struggled to keep my head above water. I look back exactly 6 years on from the day I arrived in London and am equally overwhelmed now, though happily so, by the contrasting life we lead. Adverse Childhood Experience, is the theory that emotionally traumatic events in a child’s life, left unchecked, can lead to destructive behaviours and emotional suffering in later life. Children who have been exposed to adverse experiences including some of which my own daughter has experienced are known to suffer and under-achieve and at worst, can fall into criminality or suffer extreme mental health issues. My daughter thrives. She is emotionally literate, aspirational, self-assured and has a healthy respect for authority and herself. Her future looks bright and the school has played a significant role in helping her achieve this.
Before the school’s closure, she would regularly visit the school’s safe space, a gorgeous nook tucked away up in the eaves of the big Victorian brick schoolhouse, lined with books, toys, and cushions where the school counsellor would be, to let her sit quietly, or be heard if she needed to speak. Their teaching and management staff are compassionate and have been forthcoming in responding to my concerns about her wellbeing in the wake of traumatic early years. The school runs wellbeing sessions for both parents and children, on recognising stress and anxiety, and how to manage them constructively.
Educational attainment and emotional wellbeing are two sides of the same penny. If children are to develop key social and emotional skills and go on to contribute to society, the environment where they spend at least half of their waking time needs to be carefully constructed to meet more than just their academic needs.
As someone who now works in children’s mental health, I’m acutely aware that this type of provision is woefully under-resourced and that my daughter’s school is an anomaly. I am also aware of the critical lack of support out there for children following the impact of the lockdown. Children from supportive backgrounds are suffering the lack of stimulation and social interaction. So many others will be isolated in environments where abuse and exploitation reside behind closed doors. I’m privileged to work with some amazing professionals ( including teachers) , and we are all concerned with how best to manage the generational fallout which now looms large. What has become clear is that the cost of not acting would be huge and the impact would be felt for generations to come.
Even if we look only at the evidence available, it is clear that unchecked emotional trauma in childhood will often be linked to criminality and high rates of recidivism in later life.
If we consider the financial impact to the NHS and DWP , we know that debilitating mental health problems reduce people’s capacity to function in the workplace. Where better to intervene early on than the only place children are mandatorily and consistently in attendance. Waiting until a young person is attending a youth offending institute or children’s mental health unit before you intervene is simply too late. Early interventions and preventative programmes are robustly proven to reduce the mental health issues which too often manifest themselves as destructive behaviours, including exclusion and criminal activity. Permanently excluding a child costs the state £370,000 over the child’s lifetime in extra education, benefits, healthcare and criminal justice costs – with almost 8,000 permanent exclusions last year, this equates to £2.9 billion that could have been saved.
I write this with the hindsight of someone who’s had the good fortune to access this type of support for my daughter, and I write on behalf of the thousands who haven’t. I also write on behalf of the generation of young people who will not only suffer the impact of this crisis in the immediate future, but will feel the ripples effects on youth unemployment and rising public debt. Support in schools for mental health provision is needed now more than ever to mitigate the generational impact of this pandemic.
The government needs to act. There is not enough adequate provision for mental health support for children, to help them process their grief, and anxiety and redirect their focus to healthier ways of managing these overwhelming feelings.
If you would like to learn more about Khulisa’s programmes and interventions, please visit our website here.