“A policeman, a mental health nurse…” Principal says wishlist would help solve problems at his school

A principal has shared his wish list of solutions to the huge problems facing schools after the pandemic. Martin Hulland, head of Cardiff West Community High School, said schools needed support to help education and children recover from Covid disruption.

The social, mental health and economic problems caused by Covid and the closures are spreading through schools and risk damaging the future chances of young people, he warned. The effect of high student absenteeism, increased mental health issues, deprivation and anti-social behavior has been described by school leaders since the first lockdown in 2020.

Mr Hulland’s school catchment area includes some of the most deprived areas of Wales. Communities like hers have been hit harder than others during the pandemic and in lockdown, her staff have delivered food and work to children’s doorsteps. Here’s what school leaders are saying about the effects of the pandemic

Mr Hulland said urgent action was needed to get children back to school and support them. he said he supported the Welsh Government’s announcement this week that fines should be reimposed on parents and guardians who fail to send their children to school. But he fears it will take years to bring attendance back across Wales to pre-pandemic levels and is worried about what this means for the future and the life chances of children and young people.

Children eligible for free school meals across Wales are now more than seven percentage points more likely to miss school than their better-off peers. Attendance at Cardiff West Community High, where two out of three pupils are entitled to free school meals, is hovering around 80 per cent, Mr Hulland said. That’s well below the 91% before the pandemic and 10% below the national average now – although in line with similar schools. Like most schools and most of society, Cardiff West Community High is also facing growing mental health issues, some of them very serious.

Mr Hulland points out that all schools face similar issues to varying degrees and said they need professional, on-site help to deal with some of these issues. Mental health issues in children served by its staff include suicidal thoughts, self-harm, school phobia and isolation.

The Headmaster’s Wish List

If money weren’t an issue, Mr. Hulland would like his school to have:

  • A mental health nurse on site
  • A social worker on site
  • A policeman on the spot
  • More family engagement staff
  • He said having these professionals in the school to work directly with children and their families and liaise with other services such as the Child and Adult Mental Health Service (CAMHS) would help. Although teachers do more than teach, they are not trained mental health or social work professionals.

Mr Hulland believes services like this in schools would help education resume in the event of a pandemic, address[pupilabsenceandsocialandhealthproblemsmadeworsebylockdownsandCovid[pupilabsenceandsocialandhealthproblemsmadeworsebylockdownsandCovid[l’absenced’élèvesetlesproblèmessociauxetdesantéaggravésparlesfermeturesetCovid[pupilabsenceandsocialandhealthproblemsmadeworsebylockdownsandCovid

“It’s easy to see how some of the mental health issues can be linked to deprivation. It is estimated that 25-30% of students experience or have experienced mental health issues. It’s a crisis on every level,” he said.

“Attendance is a huge problem. This is the biggest challenge for schools today. If you’re trying to manage attendance, it gets to the heart of social issues like mental health, housing, and deprivation.

Cardiff West Community High School

Mr Hulland said protection credentials have started to drop since schools reopened after the second lockdown, but schools are still worried about where children are, what they are doing and how well they are safe when they are not at school. Anti-social behavior beyond school gates has also increased in many parts of Wales since the start of the pandemic and is seeping into schools, he warned.

He said he was “proud” of the work of parents, pupils and staff, but more support is needed.

“A number of parents would like additional support. It’s about increasing contact with the community, inviting parents and getting them to talk to us. Some families are struggling. Low attendance is the result of deep-rooted social issues that require additional resources that schools cannot manage on their own. It’s a time of change and everyone is struggling.

“I would say to parents who don’t send their children: schools are safe places. We have worked hard to move forward and want students and support families. It is very important that students come to school every day.

Welcoming the Welsh Government’s ‘community schools’ plan, Mr Hulland said schools must be given the funds needed to tackle all the huge problems made worse by the pandemic and to encourage children and their families to see education as part of the solution.

Thousands of children miss school across Wales

The latest school attendance data from the Welsh Government released on May 4 shows:

  • Between April 25 and April 29, more than 65,000 school sessions were missed by children for permitted and unauthorized reasons, including illness and holidays.
  • On average, 90.8% of all students attended school in the first week of the April 25-29 term, compared to 87.1% at the end of the last term.
  • Attendance is lowest in key exam years. More than one in four pupils in A level 13 are not present and more than one in 10 GCSE year 11 are absent.
  • On April 29 alone, 81.5% of children eligible for free school meals were in school, compared to 88.9% of their more affluent classmates. On the same day, nearly 18,000 students were absent in total, including 1,142 (1.2%) primary students and 1,614 (3.5%) secondary students absent for known reasons related to Covid. The most common reason for absence is illness and not Covid.
  • Since September 2021, 271 children in Wales have missed 40 or more days of school for known Covid-related reasons and 31,591 for any other reason.
  • A total of 88,326 (18%) of children have missed between five and a half and 10 days of school since September for known Covid-related reasons.

Average school attendance across Wales by age group 25-29 April

  • Reception 92.6
  • Year 1 93.1
  • Year 2 93.4
  • Year 3 93.2
  • Year 4 93.3
  • Year 5 93.1
  • Year 6 93.0
  • Year 7 91.6
  • Year 8 90.3
  • Year 9 89.1
  • Year 10 88.8
  • Year 11 87.1
  • Year 12 83.3
  • Year 13 73.6

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