“For many children we are the first point of contact”: supporting children’s mental health in schools

A 2018 evidence review from Public Health England reported that one in 10 young people have some form of diagnosable mental health condition. This, the report suggests, equates to as many as 850,000 children and young people with a diagnosable mental health disorder in the UK. It also reported that half of all mental health problems emerge before the age of 14, and children with persistent mental health problems face unequal chances in life.

Research has also highlighted the impact of “key factors” like poverty and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), including emotional trauma, abuse or neglect (which people living in higher areas of deprivation are more likely to experience) on an individual’s chance of developing a mental illness. However, an additional factor often cited in surveys around child mental health and wellbeing is the impact of school, including exam stress, and bullying. Mental ill health has also been found to have an impact on attainment, behaviour and a child’s ability to learn. As a result, teachers are often part of the front line of supporting adults for children who are suffering from mental ill health, with increasing pressure being placed on teachers and schools to identify and signpost children to other services.

Schools, as well as teachers,  are increasingly becoming a focus for the delivery of Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) in their community. Often schools are at the centre of their local community, so it is logistically convenient to coordinate services there; it can for some be a less intimidating or stigmatising environment than attending a clinic at a GP surgery, for example. School is the primary developmental space that children encounter after their family, and children’s learning and development and their mental health are often interrelated, so it makes sense for teachers to take an interest in terms of attainment and progress in learning. In December 2017, the Department of Health and Department for Education (DfE) published the Green Paper Transforming children and young people’s mental health provision which highlighted the role of schools as key in promoting a positive message about mental health and wellbeing among school age children and young people.

Good work is already being done, but how can we do more?

Research has shown that there is already a lot of good and effective practice being done in schools around children’s mental health. Many schools already work in partnership with local health teams to provide in house CAMHS support in the form of mental health nurses and social workers who are posted on site for children to access. One of the major recommendations in a 2018 Audit Scotland report on child mental health in Scotland was to encourage more of this type of partnership working. The report stressed the importance of joint working between public services if child mental health is to be improved, and where possible to include as wide a spectrum of public services in the delivery of CAMHS support, including criminal justice and housing practitioners, as well as health and social care and education staff.

In some schools senior pupils and designated members of staff are being offered mental health first aid training, and wear lanyards to help students identify them should they ever need to talk to someone. While it is important – particularly for students who participate in mental health first aid programmes – to be made aware of the challenges the role may entail, it can be a rewarding experience for young people to participate in and can also be a vital in-road to support for some students who would otherwise feel uncomfortable talking to a member of staff.

Other programmes like those developed by the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, Centre for Mental Health and the ICE PACK and Kitbag tools (which have been used widely in UK schools) look at resilience building  and promoting coping mechanisms among young people, as well as encouraging the creation of trusting relationships which focus on nurturing and normalising mental illness to encourage children and young people to feel comfortable discussing their feelings and thoughts. These programmes also integrate early intervention and prevention approaches, hoping to identify children and young people who are suffering from mental illness as early as possible and signpost them to appropriate support.

The specific role of teachers

Teachers need to remember that they are not health or social care professionals and that – as much as they would like to completely solve all of the problems of their students – they can only do what they can, and that is enough.

It is also very important for teachers to practise what they preach in as much as teacher self-care is as important as signposting children and young people who are struggling with mental health issues. A 2016 survey by the National Union of Teachers (NUT) found almost half of teachers had sought help from their doctor for stress-related condition. Teacher stress and burnout and those leaving the profession due to conditions like stress do not help to create an environment that is supportive of good mental health in the classroom. Teacher wellbeing is so important and building their own resilience is one way that teachers can start to embed good mental health in their practice. If you are doing it yourself it will be easier to help and show children how to do it if they come to you for advice!

Teachers simply being there and offering a safe space and first point of contact for many children is important. Listening and signposting can be so valuable for those pupils taking the first step and teachers should not be put off by any personal perception of a lack of expertise in mental health – a small amount of knowledge or understanding of what to do next is more than enough. In some respects, teachers should feel almost privileged that a student has chosen to come to them, someone they feel they can trust and talk to.

A poll conducted as part of a webinar held for educational practitioners found that rather than requiring more information about mental illness, what teachers actually wanted was more practical examples of how to apply support in the classroom and how to embed mental health into their teaching and the learning of their students.

A unique opportunity

Schools and teachers are on the front line of public services and have a unique opportunity through regular contact with children to help to build and promote resilience among pupils, and embedding this within the whole school can be an effective way of ensuring pupils feel the benefit without being singled out. Taking nurturing approaches to learning and teaching, and promoting the creation of trusting relationships is key to some of the already effective practice going on in schools. Sharing the learning and best practice that is already happening will be vital to ensuring that support for children suffering from mental ill health improves and adapts to changing needs in the future.


If you liked this article, you may also be interested in reading:

Writing and recovery: creative writing as a response to mental ill health

Addressing social mobility through education – is it enough?

The Changing Room Initiative: tackling the stigma of poor mental health in men through sport

Follow us on Twitter to find out which topics are interesting our research team

Reeling in the year: a look back at 2018

It’s been another busy year for The Knowledge Exchange Blog. We’ve covered a variety of subjects, from housing and the environment to education and planning. So as the year draws to a close, now’s a good time to reflect on some of the subjects we’ve been blogging about during 2018.

Bibliotheraphy, walkability and family learning

We started the year with health and wellbeing in mind. Our first blog post of 2018 highlighted the increasing application of “bibliotherapy”:

“The Reading Agency’s Books on Prescription scheme has been running nationally in England since 2013 and since it started has been expanded to cover Books on Prescription for common mental health conditions, Books on Prescription for dementia, Reading Well for young people and Reading Well for long term conditions. 635,000 people are estimated to have benefited from the schemes.”

In February, we blogged about family learning, where parents engage in learning activities with their children. This can involve organised programmes such as Booksmart, but activities such as reading to children or singing with them can also be described as family learning:

Research from the National Literacy Trust, suggests that “parental involvement in their child’s reading has been found to be the most important determinant of language and emergent literacy”.

In recent years, growing numbers of cities and towns have introduced “shared spaces”, where pedestrians, cyclists and drivers share the same, deregulated space. As we reported in March, the practice has proved divisive, with supporters claiming that shared spaces can improve the urban environment, revitalise town centres, and reduce congestion, while opponents believe that shared space schemes – particularly the removal of kerbs and crossings – are dangerous and exclusionary for vulnerable groups of pedestrians, people with disabilities and those with reduced mobility.

In April, we took the opportunity to promote the Idox Information Service, highlighting a selection of the hundreds of items added to our database since the beginning of 2018. All members of the Idox Information Service have access to the Idox database, which contains thousands of reports and journal articles on public and social policy.

Voters, apprentices and city trees

Local elections in May prompted us to blog about the voting rights of those with age related degenerative mental conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.

“Many people with dementia still hold strong political feelings, and know their own opinion when it comes to voting for political parties or in a referendum. However, the process of voting can often present them with specific challenges. It is up to local authority teams and their election partners to make the process as transparent and easy for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s as possible. Specific challenges include not spoiling the ballot, and the ability to write/ see the ballot paper and process the information quickly enough.”

A year after the launch of the government’s Apprenticeship Levy in June, we highlighted a report from the Reform think tank which suggested that significant reforms were needed to improve England’s apprenticeship system. Among the recommended changes were a renewed focus on quality over quantity, removal of the 10% employer co-investment requirement and making Ofqual the sole quality assurance body for maintaining apprenticeship standards.

The shortage of affordable housing continues to exercise the minds of policy makers, and in July we blogged about its impact on the private rented sector:

“In many cases people view the private rented sector as being a stop gap for those not able to get social housing, and not able to afford a deposit for a mortgage. Although in many instances they may be right, the demographic of those renting privately now is changing, and becoming more and more varied year on year, with many young professionals and families with children now renting privately.”

The long, hot summer of 2018 was one to remember, but its effect on air quality in urban areas underlined the need to combat the pollution in our air. In August, we blogged about an innovation that could help to clear the air:

“Designed by a German startup, a City Tree is a “living wall” of irrigated mosses with the pollution-absorbing power of almost 300 trees. A rainwater-collection unit is built into the City Tree, as well as a nutrient tank and irrigation system, allowing the assembly to water itself.”

Planning, polarisation and liveable cities

September saw another highly successful Scottish Planning and Environmental Law conference. It opened with a thought-provoking presentation by Greg Lloyd, professor Emeritus at Ulster University, and visiting professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, who challenged delegates to consider what might happen if the current planning system were to be abolished altogether, to clear the way for a new and more fit-for-purpose planning system.

In October, we focused on the ever-increasing job polarisation affecting the labour market:

In the EU, data shows that between 2002-2014 medium skilled routine jobs declined by 8.9%, whilst high skilled roles rose by 5.4%, and low skilled jobs grew marginally (0.1%). As a consequence, wage inequalities have grown.”

More than half the world’s population now lives in urban areas, presenting significant challenges to local authorities who have to try and make their cities work for everyone. In November, we reported from The Liveable City conference in Edinburgh, which showcased ideas from the UK and Denmark on how to make cities more attractive for residents and visitors:

“A great example of the reinvention of a post-industrial area came from Ian Manson, Chief Executive of Clyde Gateway, Scotland’s biggest and most ambitious regeneration programme. When it comes to recovering from the demise of old industries, the East End of Glasgow has seen many false dawns. As Ian explained, when Clyde Gateway was launched ten years ago, the local community were sceptical about the programme’s ambitions. But they were also ready to engage with the project. A decade on, the area has undergone significant physical generation, but more importantly this has taken place in partnership with the local people.”

Although much has been made of the government’s claim that austerity is coming to an end, many local authorities are still struggling to provide services within tight financial constraints. One of our final blogs this year reported on local councils that are selling their assets to generate revenue:

“In a bid to increase affordable housing supply, for example, Leicester City Council has sold council land worth more than £5m for less than £10 as part of deals with housing associations.”

Brexit means….

Overshadowing much of public policy in 2018 has been the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. Our blog posts have reflected the uncertainties posed by Brexit with regard to science and technology, local authority funding and academic research.

As we enter 2019, those uncertainties remain, and what actually happens is still impossible to predict. As always, we’ll continue to blog about public policy and practice, and try to make sense of the important issues, based on evidence, facts and research.

To all our readers, a very happy Christmas, and our best wishes for a peaceful and prosperous new year.

Autism-friendly cities: making a world of difference

At this time of year, high streets and shops across the country are bustling, decked out with lights and colourful decorations, and of course, the familiar Christmas tunes.

For many, this is part and parcel of the exciting run up to Christmas.  However, for autistic people, the added crowds, lights and noise can turn an already challenging experience into a sensory nightmare.

Indeed, although more than 1 in 100 people in the UK are on the autism spectrum, many still struggle to access local shops and services.  Places that many neurotypical people may take for granted – shops, theatres, cinemas, cafes and restaurants, hairdressers, libraries and museums, public toilets, and public transport – can be particularly challenging environments for autistic people.

Unpredictable and unfamiliar noises, lights, smells, crowds, queues, and other events can be overwhelming, and may cause sensory distress – ultimately leading to a meltdown.  Meltdowns may present as crying, screaming, kicking, biting or lashing out.  A lack of understanding and awareness of autism among the public – including unfriendly looks, judgements and comments – can further enhance the distress experienced.

In 2015, a YouGov poll found that 99.5% of people in the UK had heard of autism. However, there remains a lack of public understanding about how it may present, and the associated challenges autistic people face.  This is perhaps best illustrated by the recent case of a young woman with Asperger’s being forcibly removed from a cinema for ‘laughing too loudly’.  Unfortunately, this experience is not unique.  Research has found that as many as 28% of people have been asked to leave a public space because of behaviour associated with autism.

Indeed, many autistic people and their families have changed their own behaviour to reduce the chance of experiencing intolerance from the public.

It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that social isolation is a common issue – 79% of autistic people and 70% of parents feel socially isolated.  Almost half (44%) sometimes don’t go out because they’re worried about how people will react.

Increasing public understanding

The recent Too Much Information (TMI) campaign, delivered by the National Autistic Society (NAS), aims to increase public understanding of the five core features of autism.

Those five core features are:

  • anxiety in social situations
  • anxiety with unexpected changes
  • sensory overload
  • meltdowns
  • processing time

Creating an autism friendly city

One response has been the drive towards the creation of ‘autism-friendly’ cities.

According to Autism Together and Autism Adventures, an autism-friendly city is one in which autistic people can ‘use public transport, shop for food and clothes, take part in sports and leisure activities, visit cultural and tourist institutions and eat in restaurants.’

The NAS have established an ‘Autism Friendly Award’, which aims to help businesses make the small changes that make the most difference to autistic people.  Their Autism Friendly Awards toolkit sets out a helpful five-point checklist:

  • customer information: providing appropriate information to help support autistic people and their families’ visitor or customer experience
  • staff understanding of autism: developing staff understanding
  • physical environment: making appropriate and reasonable adjustments within the limits of the physical environment
  • customer experience: a willingness to be flexible and providing a clear way for autistic people and their families to provide feedback
  • promoting understanding: committing to helping increase wider public understanding of autism

Examples of good practice

In Glasgow, the council have been working to make the city centre autism-friendly.  The plans have focused initially upon shopping centres, transport hubs, museums, cinemas and key operational staff across the city centre.

The Glasgow Film Theatre (GFT), Scotland’s oldest independent cinema, recently became the first cinema in the UK to achieve an Autism Friendly Award for their work with children and adults.  This includes monthly screenings for autistic adults and children, with the volume slightly lowered, stair lights remaining switched on, house lights dimmed and a chill out zone provided. Trained ‘autism facilitators’ also answer questions at the end of each film.

Other organisations have followed the GFT’s lead. Glasgow Science Centre, for example, has recently introduced autism friendly hours.

In the North East, Aberdeen has also announced its intention to work towards autism-friendly status.

As well as raising awareness and making key shopping locations more accessible for autistic people, Aberdeen also plans to introduce autism-friendly libraries, including pop up sensory sessions designed for autistic children.

Research has shown as many as 40% of people with autism never visit a library – however, 90% have said they would be more likely to visit their local library if some changes were made.

Such adjustments include staff training, increased tolerance of noise and understanding from the public.  Dimensions have released free online training and top tips for libraries looking to become autism-friendly. It notes that while many people with autism need a quiet environment, they may make noise themselves – for example, by talking to themselves or others, becoming excitable or moving around. They highlight the importance of making clear to the public that the library is autism-friendly, which includes a tolerance of certain levels of noise.

Other cities that have been working towards autism-friendly status include: Bristol –  whose airport has won an Autism Friendly Award; Liverpool – where autism champions are being supported to recognise and respond to autism; and Newcastle in Northern Ireland – which has been named as Northern Ireland’s first autism-friendly town. It is anticipated that being autism-friendly will help boost the local economy and tourism.

Other ways to make cities autism-friendly

As well as organisations themselves making adjustments and promoting autism understanding among staff and customers, there are a few other ways in which cities can be made more autism-friendly.

Making public transport more accessible is a key challenge.  More than half of autistic people avoid public transport due to fears of disruption.  There are many things that can be done to help make public transport less distressing for autistic people.

From an architecture and design perspective, there are also many other things that can help to make urban buildings and spaces more accessible, in regard to ventilation, acoustics, heating, lighting, layout and outdoor spaces.

From a town planning perspective – there is currently a lack of research and guidance on the design of places for autistic people per se, however, there may be some transferability of lessons from work on the creation of dementia-friendly and child-friendly spaces.

For example, the provision of clear signage and removal of street clutter may be beneficial for autistic people.  Edinburgh City Council has recently banned on-street advertising structures in order to make streets more accessible for people with disabilities.

There have also been concerns raised that shared spaces – including the removal of road signs, traffic crossings and delineation between roads/walkways – may negatively impact upon autistic people, who may struggle with the uncertainty such schemes deliberately create.  This is an area where more research and guidance is needed.

The way forward

Creating a city that is autism-friendly requires a multi-faceted approach that includes both raising public awareness and understanding, and creating towns and places that allow for the specific challenges that are faced by autistic people and their families.

Many steps that can be taken are low cost and easy to implement – and support is available from a range of national and local autism organisations, such as the NAS.

Even just reacting with kindness and compassion when witnessing a possible autistic meltdown – perhaps offering some solution such as a quiet space – is significant.  The sum of these small changes can make a world of difference to autistic people and their families.

I wouldn’t change my son for the world but I will change the world for my son.” Julie Simpson, Founder of Autism Adventures


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Ten years on from Byron – are children any safer online?

“The rapid pace at which new media are evolving has left adults and children stranded either side of a generational digital divide.” (Professor Tanya Byron, 2008)

On examining the risks children face from the internet and video games, the Byron Review made 38 recommendations for the government, industry and families to work together to support children’s safety online and to reduce access to adult video games.

Ten years on, are children any safer online?

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) argues “there is still a great deal of work to be done”.

‘Failing to do enough’

The recommendations of the Byron Review were recently revisited by the NSPCC in its new report which reviewed the progress made in implementing them. Of the 38 recommendations, the report found that:

  • 16 were implemented (only 13 fully);
  • 11 were not implemented;
  • seven were partially implemented; and
  • for four recommendations, the landscape has changed too much to accurately judge.

Despite the changes in the political landscape and in technological developments, however, the NCPCC notes that the vast majority of the recommendations made in 2008 are still relevant and “urgently need to be addressed.”

Professor Byron herself stated in the foreword of the report that “much has changed over the last decade, but one thing has not: Government is failing to do enough to protect children online.”

Byron noted that, excluding the areas where the recommendations are no longer applicable, still 53% of her remaining recommendations “have either been ignored by Government or have only been partially followed through.”

In terms of the implications, social networks are left to make their own rules with no government regulation, online safety is not yet a compulsory part of the school curriculum and responsibility for child safety online falls heavily on parents who may lack understanding of latest trends, or even children who may not be equipped to make wise decisions – all findings similarly highlighted ten years ago. So what has changed?

Progress

The recommendations that were fully implemented include: tighter regulation of new forms of online advertising to children; a more consistent approach to age rating online games; and assessment of e-safety standards in schools as part of Ofsted inspections.

The UK Council for Child Internet Safety was also established as a result of the recommendations – the primary strategy objective. It has since produced various guidance documents for schools, parents and industry.

More recently, as part of the government’s Digital Charter, its forthcoming Internet Safety Strategy will introduce a social media code of practice and transparency reporting. Children are also to be given extra protection online under new data protection laws. Byron describes this as an important step but raises concern that the rules will not be directly enforceable. Moreover, the social media code is expected to be voluntary and does not include anti-grooming measures.

While a voluntary code of practice for websites was a key recommendation of the Byron Review in 2008, Byron has recently argued that “it is much too late for a voluntary code for social networks.”

Just before the NSPCC’s report, it was revealed that there had been more than 1300 grooming offences in the first six months since the Sexual Communication with a Child offence came into force, with almost two thirds of cases involving the use of Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram.

Benefits

Of course, technology has numerous benefits for children and young people. As Byron’s review highlighted, the internet and video games offer a range of opportunities for fun, communication, skill development, creativity and learning.

Digital technology can also be beneficial to children and young people who are disadvantaged. As UNICEF’s recent report – The State of the World’s Children 2017: Children in a digital world – argues:

“If leveraged in the right way and universally accessible, digital technology can be a game changer for children being left behind… connecting them to a world of opportunity and providing them with the skills they need to succeed in a digital world.”

Byron also highlighted the value technologies can have for children and young people living with disabilities that make living in the ‘offline’ world challenging.

As Byron suggested in 2008, what is needed is a balance between preserving the rights of children and young people to reap the enjoyment of the digital world and enhance their learning and development, and ensuring they (and indeed adults) are sufficiently informed to maintain safety.

Way forward

To ensure children have the same rights and security online as they have offline, the NSPCC is calling for:

  • a set of minimum standards and a statutory code of practice for online providers, underpinned by robust regulation;
  • greater transparency on data and information-sharing amongst industry; and
  • clear and transparent processes for reporting, moderating and removing content from sites, verifying children’s ages and offering support to users when needed.

To be effective, the NSPCC specify that these measures would need to be consistently applied to all sites, apps and games where children interact online.

Perhaps the government’s Internet Safety Strategy will introduce more stringent measures as highlighted by both Byron and the NSPCC which will go some way to making children safer in the digital world.

In the words of Byron, “The online world moves too fast for Government to drag its feet for another decade.”


If you enjoyed reading this, you may be interested in our previous posts on the impact of smart phones on young people’s mental health and what technology means for children’s development.

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It’s National Writing Day! But writing enjoyment is in decline, finds new survey

Today is National Writing Day, an annual celebration to inspire people across the UK to get writing. But this year’s annual literacy survey from the National Literacy Trust has found that children and young people’s enjoyment of writing and how often they write is in decline, suggesting that more action is needed to inspire this section of society.

Worryingly, the survey highlights that daily writing levels have been falling since 2014, and this year the Trust recorded the lowest levels of daily writing since they began asking this question in 2010 (27.0%).

What do the figures show?

Based on a survey of 47,786 children and young people aged 8 to 18 between November 2017 and end of January 2018, key findings include:

  • only half of children and young people enjoy writing very much or quite a lot (49.2%);
  • less than 1 child in 5 writes something that isn’t for school on a daily basis (17.3%);
  • more girls than boys enjoy writing (57.4% vs 40.9%) and write daily (19.9% vs 14.3%); and
  • younger children enjoy writing almost twice as much as their older peers (68.5% of 8 to 11-year-olds, 46.5% of 11 to 14-year-olds, 36% of 14 to 16-year-olds).

The percentage of children and young people who enjoy writing either very much or quite a lot decreased by 1.5 percentage points between 2016 and 2017/18, following the highest levels of writing enjoyment recorded in 2016.

Most children and young people do, however, write things on a regular basis with the use of digital technology. Most respondents said they write text messages (88.1%) and instant messages (77.8%) in their free time at least once a month, followed by short stories/fiction (44.1%) and song lyrics (35.8%). One in six children also engages in online fiction writing (such as Movellas, Wattpad) at least once a month.

This is perhaps no surprise, given the digital age we live in. However, concerns have been raised over the impact increasing use of digital technology is having on children’s ability to write. Could this be attributable, at least in part, to the declining enjoyment of writing?

Initiatives to inspire – can the World Cup help?

In an attempt to stem the decline and help inspire children and young people once again in the run up to National Writing Day, the Trust has launched a series of programmes. Drawing on the excitement surrounding the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, a range of football-themed activities, competitions, teaching resources and lesson ideas have been created to boost literacy this summer. These include:

The hope is these activities will inspire more children and young people to get writing, both within the classroom and outside it.

Previous years’ activities that have drawn on the influence of football and major sporting events suggest that these activities may well achieve their aim. Following a writing competition around the Women’s FA Cup last year, teachers said their students’ enthusiasm for writing (80%), motivation to write (76%) and confidence in writing (68%) had improved.

Similarly, the Premier League Reading Stars (PLRS) programme has had a significant impact on pupils’ reading attainment. In Christ’s School in Richmond upon Thames, 80% of pupils made more than expected progress after taking part. Commenting on the success of the programme in Girlington Primary School in Bradford, Assistant Headteacher, Daniel Walker, noted:

 “Two boys made two sub levels of progress, which is the equivalent of more than a year’s expected progress in one term. One boy made dramatic progress of a whole level (3 sub-levels) in a term.”

Final thoughts

There is universal agreement that writing is important, particularly for young people, in terms of engagement and development. Even the respondents to the Trust’s survey agreed with statements highlighting the functional aspect of writing – 77.6% of children and young people agreed that writing will help them learn more and 74.7% agreed that the more they write, the better their writing becomes. Over half also agreed that they will get a better job if they are good at writing.

The fun aspect of writing, on the other hand, fared less well. Only 41.6% agreed that writing is fun, and only 34.0% agreed that writing is cool. Indeed, it has been argued that there is a need for greater emphasis on writing for pleasure. With their focus on the more fun aspects of writing, perhaps the recent programmes from the Literacy Trust and other similar programmes can help turn these statistics around.

And when next year’s National Writing Day comes around, hopefully we will be highlighting a rise in writing enjoyment.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may be interested in our previous post on writing and mental health.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team. 

Multiplying excellence: maths schools in the UK

In a report published for National Numeracy Day, it was revealed that innumeracy and poor numeracy skills costs the UK economy over £20bn. And despite there being no scientific research to support the idea of a ‘maths person’, more than three-quarters of children at secondary school surveyed ahead of National Numeracy Day believe that some people are naturally able to do maths better than others. Combatting these challenges by improving attainment and study of maths past GCSE (and STEM subjects more widely) has been a target for the UK government for some years, with the current government highlighting it as a specific objective in order to fulfil the aims of the Industrial Strategy.

The challenge of innumeracy

Public perceptions of maths are poor. Research suggests that it is far more socially acceptable for an adult to say “oh I can’t work this sum out” than to say for example that they can’t read a word. As we get older, while reading and writing, and general literacy, is seen as something that is essential, many do not hold basic maths and numeracy skill in the same regard. This is despite the fact that being innumerate can have just as significant an impact on someone as being illiterate.

The knock-on impact of poor numeracy skills can be seen throughout adult life:  poorer employment prospects; lower confidence and self-esteem, and as a result poorer mental health; increased risk of poverty; and an increased likelihood of having a poor grasp of personal finances and as a result higher risk of unsustainable levels of debt. In addition, poor parental numeracy, has been shown to have an impact on the numeracy and confidence around maths of children and young people who grow up in the same environment. While we can’t all be maths prodigies, it is thought that poor parental attitudes to numeracy is leading to children, particularly girls and those from deprived or lower socioeconomic backgrounds, to miss out on opportunities to advance their maths education. It is hoped that specific targeted interventions, such as the introduction of maths schools will provide an environment for these pupils to flourish, and then go on to inspire the next generation.

 

Lagging in the Pisa rankings

The latest PISA rankings (the new figures are due to be published later this year) show that the UK is, and has been, performing consistently poorer than a number of other developed nations. However, students from east Asia by far outperform most others. Schools are also being encouraged, as well as providing specialist maths teaching, to try to integrate some of the techniques used in Chinese and Singaporean schools in particular to drive improvement in the subject. In addition, the number of young people who take maths as an optional subject (once it becomes non-compulsory after GCSE level) is staggeringly low. Raising this, along with the general quality of maths teaching should be a priority of all schools, not just those which offer a specialist maths education.

From Russia with love

Back when Michael Gove was Education Secretary he had an idea to base maths free schools on the model seen in Russia, particularly on the Kolmogorov Physics and Mathematics school in Moscow. The specialist school which allows young people aged 11-17 to complete their formal education in a maths-centred environment is part of Moscow State University. The association with the university means that students are taught by professors and research assistants, not only raising their attainment in the subject, but exposing them to quality teaching from professionals passionate about their subject, inspiring them to understand the professional routes that further mathematics study can bring. This is something that research has suggested is not widely available in UK schools.

Maths schools in the UK

There are two specialist maths schools in the country: Kings College Mathematics School, and Exeter Mathematics School. H callowever the government has released extra funding to try to encourage other universities to set up affiliated maths schools, making use of their teaching resource and providing an opportunity for those gifted and interested enough in the subject to excel.

In Scotland, a report published in 2018 titled Making maths count suggested that maths be made a national priority, highlighting that while there were pockets of exceptional practice in Scotland, there was a lack of co-ordination when it came to sharing expertise and best practice between schools. There are no plans to encourage a similar programme to maths schools in Scotland, but suggested improvements to raise levels of teaching in maths education in Scotland have included changing the requirements for teacher training, to require new teachers to have at least a higher qualification in maths (they already have to have a higher in English to teach and some have asked why it is not the case for maths too). Additionally, projects relating to “maths upskilling” of both the current and new teaching workforce in Scotland are designed to build confidence in using maths and applying it to real life situations so that it can be taught to a high standard with a good level of understanding (which the report found is not always the case currently).

Final thoughts

Future mathematicians  are vital for the future growth of the economy. And not just in the obvious areas like maths teaching, economics and statistics. The “age of digital” presents unprecedented opportunities for those with maths-based qualifications, with the demand for skilled workers with an expertise in maths far outstripping the availability of skilled maths graduates. It is hoped that the introduction (and the government hopes future further rollout) of maths schools in England will help to promote maths as a subject and raise attainment and standards in maths to encourage a new generation of maths learners to be developed.


Want to check up on your maths skills? Take the National Numeracy Challenge.

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Why the digital divide matters for children’s future prospects

By Steven McGinty

One of the biggest myths of modern times is that all children and young people are ‘digital natives’. That is, they have developed an understanding of digital technologies as they’ve grown up, rather than as adults. But this view has been heavily contested, with research highlighting that young people are not a “homogeneous generation of digital children”.

In the media, the issue is rarely given attention. Instead, news reports focus on the use of futuristic technologies in the classroom, such as East Renfrewshire Council’s recent announcement of their investment of £250,000 in virtual reality equipment. The less spoken truth is that many children and young people are leaving school without basic digital skills.

In 2017, the Carnegie Trust UK published a report challenging the assumption that all young people are digitally literate. They highlighted that as many as 300,000 young people in the UK still lack basic digital skills, and that although more are becoming digitally engaged, the division is deepening for those that remain excluded.

In particular, the report highlighted that vulnerable young people are most at risk, such as those who are unemployed, experiencing homelessness, living in care, in secure accommodation, excluded from mainstream education, or seeking asylum.

Research by the UK Digital Skills Taskforce has also found that many young people lack digital skills. However, an arguably more worrying finding from their study was that 23% of parents did not believe digital skills were relevant to their children’s future career success. This suggests that digital literacy is as much associated with socio-cultural values as to whether you are Generation X or Generation Y.

Similarly, the CfBT Education Trust examined the digital divide in access to the internet for school students aged five to 15. It found that children from households of the lowest socio-economic class access the internet for just as long as those from other backgrounds, but they are significantly less likely to use the internet to carry out school work or homework. As a result, the report recommended that interventions should not focus on improving access but rather ensuring that students are using technology effectively.

Further research by the CfBT Education Trust found that only 3% of young people did not have access to the internet, and suggested that schemes which provide students with free equipment are in danger of wasting resources.

Many believe digital skills are essential for academic success. This includes the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications, who in 2017 recommended that digital skills should be taught alongside reading, writing and mathematics, rather than in specialist computer science classes.

Research, however, is unclear on the digital divide’s impact on educational performance (for example, research has shown that smartphone use has no impact on education attainment). But teachers are concerned about their pupils, and in a 2010 survey 55% of teachers felt that the digital divide was putting children at a serious disadvantage.

However, there are organisations offering hope to young people. For instance, Nominet Trust’s Digital Reach programme is working with leading youth organisations to increase digital skills amongst some of the UK’s most disadvantaged young people. Vicki Hearn, director at Nominet Trust, explains that:

Digitally disadvantaged young people are amongst the hardest-to-reach and we need new models to engage with them to disrupt the cycle of disadvantage and exclusion. Our evidenced approach gives us confidence that Digital Reach will have a tangible impact on the lives of those who have so far been left behind.”

Final thoughts

Whether someone has digital skills or not is often a mix of their socio-economic class, cultural values, and even personality traits. However, if everyone is to prosper in a digital society, it will be important that all children and young people are encouraged to develop these digital skills, so they can utilise the technologies of tomorrow.


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Addressing social mobility through education – is it enough?

School children raising hands. View from behind.

We looked at the issue of social mobility and education last October, highlighting that although there has been continued investment by successive governments, the rate of progress is slow:

“it has been estimated that at the current rate of progress it will take 50 years to close the attainment gap for disadvantaged pupils in England.”

Since then, it seems the situation surrounding social mobility has become even more precarious.

Key priority?

The issue of social mobility is an historic one and it is claimed to be a key priority for the current government, which is working towards addressing the issue through education via its recently published national plan and the work of the Opportunity Areas programme.

However, in December all four board members of the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) resigned over the government’s lack of progress on social justice, and in January, Education Secretary, Justine Greening, who played a key role in both the Opportunity Areas programme and social mobility action plan, also resigned.

The resignation letter of the Chair of the SMC, Alan Milburn, praised Justine Greening for having “shown a deep commitment to the issue”, but noted that “it has become obvious the government as a whole is unable to commit the same level of support.”

The last publication of the SMC, published in November, highlighted the existence of “a stark social mobility postcode lottery” in Britain and substantial inequalities in educational attainment linked to social disadvantage and place. The derailment of the SMC and subsequent loss of an education secretary openly committed to the issue, can therefore only be cause for concern.

Nevertheless, the government continues to stress its ambition of ‘no community left behind’, with a continued focus on initiatives such as Opportunity Areas.

Opportunity Areas

Opportunity Areas are part of the government’s national plan for dealing with social mobility through education.

The programme targets £72 million of funding at 12 areas identified as the most challenged when it comes to social mobility. The first six areas were announced in October 2016, with a further six announced in January 2017. The aim is to bring together schools, colleges, universities, early years providers and employers to improve the life chances of disadvantaged children.

The 12 areas will also have priority access to other government support including the Teaching and Leadership Innovation Fund worth £75 million, focused on supporting teachers and school leaders in challenging areas to develop. And a new £3.5 million programme will support the creation of a research school for each opportunity area.

While the programme has been welcomed by many, it has also been criticised.

The Education Policy Institute (EPI) has recognised it as a ‘good start’, but highlights that there are numerous other areas across the country that are not covered by the programme where social mobility is stagnating or even getting worse. It also suggests that the system continues to fail to meet the needs of certain vulnerable groups, including those with special educational needs and disabilities, those from Gypsy Roma or Traveller communities, and Black Caribbean children.

Concerns have also been raised over challenges facing the programme, which included capacity, including the risk of overloading the system.

Other concerns that have been recently cited have included school funding cuts, which could effectively cancel out the programme’s funding for some, and the criteria used to select areas, which could be an issue while there is a lack of clarity on the relationship between social mobility and disadvantage.

Education Datalab has argued that targeting through geography alone is inadequate and that both area-based and individual focused policies are needed.

Way forward

Much of the commentary on the social mobility issue has hinted at the need for a national, rather than or in addition to  a local focus. Indeed, the SMC recognised the need for a more wide-ranging government response in its assessment of policies on social mobility published last year.

And in its new report out last week, the Education Select Committee called for greater powers and resources for the SMC to enable it to tackle social injustices effectively. It also suggests, based on evidence from the former members of the SMC, that the government needs to co-ordinate the social justice agenda from the centre to ensure all departments are aiming in the same direction.

The government’s plan for addressing social mobility through education clearly acknowledges the scale of the challenge:

“this plan is only an important step in a long-term process to improve social mobility and spread equality of opportunity… To achieve this will take time, it will take an incredible amount of determination and focus, and it will take an unprecedented partnership. But, together, it is possible.”

But if the government fails to adopt a more wide-ranging response to promoting social mobility, as so many have advocated, perhaps it will take even longer to achieve than previously estimated.


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Exploring Barnahus: a Nordic approach to supporting child abuse victims

Barnahus (which literally means Children´s house) is a child-friendly, interdisciplinary and multiagency centre where different professionals work under one roof in investigating suspected child sexual abuse cases and provide appropriate support for child victims.

Learning from the Nordic countries

Barnahus has assumed a key role in the child protection and child justice systems of many Nordic countries, including Sweden and Iceland. While there are some small differences in definition of the model across these nations, the general principle remains the same: to create a one-stop-shop for services that children can access under one roof. Services range from country to country, but usually include a combination of police, criminal justice services, child and adolescent mental health practitioners, paediatric doctors and social services.

The Barnahus model involves a high level of interdisciplinary working between different teams and allows for a complete package of care and support for a child to be created to reflect their needs. Within the Barnahus centres there are normally facilities including medical rooms, interview rooms, courtrooms, and residential facilities for those young people deemed at risk and who need to be taken immediately into temporary residential care.

Evaluations of areas that use this model of intervention have found significantly better outcomes for child victims and their families because of the multidisciplinary and multi-agency approach. Some discussions have also suggested that creating an adapted model for adult victims could also be a possibility in the future.

Reducing the trauma for victims of child sexual abuse

In England, it is estimated that only 1 in 8 victims of child sexual abuse are identified by the authorities. Children who disclose that they have been sexually abused face multiple interviews in multiple settings to a number of different people, often asking them the same questions. This can be confusing and frightening, as well as traumatic for many children who have to repeatedly recount the story of their abuse. Once the interview process is over, they can also then face long waiting times to access specialist therapeutic support.

The Barnahus model seeks to reduce some of the trauma experienced by victims of child sexual abuse by making the approach child-focused, emphasising the importance of a positive, safe and supportive environment in which to be seen by specialists, give evidence and receive support. For example, within the models used in Iceland children and young people are interviewed and examined within a week of the abuse allegation being made. These interviews are all conducted and recorded in a single location with specially trained officers and medical professionals, and they are then used in court as evidence, avoiding the victim having to revisit court in order to give evidence or testify.

Inside the centre, a specially trained interviewer asks questions, while other parties watch via a video link. Any questions they have are fed through an earpiece to the interviewer. Lawyers for the accused have to put all their questions at this point.

Another benefit to the model is that children who are interviewed are then able to access immediate assistance and counselling; in the current system in England, children may face cross-examination in court months after the alleged abuse, and would have to wait for victim support therapy.

Allocation of funding from government

In 2017, in response to the success reported in the Nordic models, the UK government earmarked Police Innovation Funding of £7.15m to help establish and roll out a similar scheme in London, which would see criminal justice specialists working alongside social services, child psychologists and other services and, it is hoped, pave the way to create a UK-wide Barnahus model in the future.

Building on the existing model in London, CYP Haven, which provides largely clinical, short term care, will provide a multi-agency, long-term support and advocacy service that is expected to support over 200 children and young people each year. Criminal justice aspects of aftercare will be embedded in the service, with evidence-gathering interviews led by child psychologists on behalf of the police and social workers, and court evidence provided through video links to aid swifter justice.


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Better outcomes for children, parents and society – why ‘family learning matters’

mother reading to her son

Improving the circumstances of families from deprived backgrounds has been a key policy focus of government in recent years, with large amounts of resources and funding having been allocated to trying to improve families’ outcomes.

One approach to achieving this, which can lead to positive outcomes for both adults and children is family learning – the importance of which is receiving increasing attention.

What is family learning?

Family learning has been described as “any learning activity that involves both children and adult family members, where learning outcomes are intended for both, and that contributes to a culture of learning in the family”. It can involve both formal and informal provision, such as engagement with programmes such as Booksmart or attending events at libraries and museums.

Parents may not even be aware that activities such as reading to their children from an early age, or singing with them, constitutes a learning activity. Unfortunately, research indicates that a large number of parents do not engage in these activities at all, despite evidence that a home environment which encourages learning and communication is as important an indicator of a child’s achievement as parental income and social status.

Research from the National Literacy Trust, suggests that “parental involvement in their child’s reading has been found to be the most important determinant of language and emergent literacy”.

With real concerns raised over children’s basic skills in recent years, family learning could be part of the solution.

Lack of basic skills

Last year, the National Literacy Trust highlighted analysis which showed that 86% of English constituencies contained at least one ward with “urgent literacy need”.

The latest edition of the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy showed there was a seven point drop in P7 pupils who can write well or very well between 2012 and 2016. And in November 2016, 79% of Reception teachers in Wales surveyed for Save the Children reported seeing children starting school without the ability to speak in complete sentences. One primary headteacher highlighted the huge need for parental awareness and engagement”.

In comparison, primary schools in Northern Ireland continue to rank among the best in the world in maths. The latest edition of Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) shows that Northern Irish children are the best in Europe at maths, and sixth best in the world.

The education system in Northern Ireland prioritises a policy of Parental Involvement in Numeracy (PIN), and government policy is to impress upon parents the role that they must play in the development of essential basic skills. The government has also just launched its ‘Giving your child a helping hand’ campaign, which is aimed at increasing parental involvement in the education of their children.

As children spend only around 15% of their time involved in formal learning activities, i.e. in school, there is substantial scope for them to be involved in more informal learning activities that will benefit both their academic and personal development.

Benefits of family learning

Research has shown that family learning interventions could increase children’s overall development levels by up to 15 percentage points for those from deprived backgrounds, and induce an average reading attainment improvement of six months.

Survey findings published by Ofsted also found that participation in family learning courses improved children’s behaviour in class, as well as their relationships with their peers and teachers. Teachers also reported noticing improvements in their pupils’ confidence levels, and their communication and interpersonal skills.

For adults, family learning offers two key positive outcomes for parents: the development of their relationship with their child, and personal skills development.

As with children, the basic skills of adults in the UK remains a cause for concern. In 2016, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published analysis which suggests that around five million adults in England lack the basic reading, writing and numeracy skills required to complete everyday tasks. Similar deficiencies have been found in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Less quantitative evidence exists of the impact of family learning engagement on adult literacy levels. However, it has been found that the average portion of adult learners achieving a qualification on family literacy programmes is higher than those on standard programmes. An evaluation of the Family Learning Impact Fund (FLIF) found that 85% of learners taking part achieved some sort of progression through taking part in a FLIF course, such as going onto a higher level of learning, or new or improved employment.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) has also highlighted a wider societal impact arising from adults taking part in family learning activities, in terms of participation in volunteering and community activities.

In addition to better outcomes for children, adults and society, family learning can also benefit the government. It is relatively low cost, as it draws on many existing resources such as libraries and museums.

Sheffield City Council, for example, has estimated that for every £1 they spend on family learning, a return on investment (ROI) of £7.58 is generated. This is down to the fact that family learning is a single intervention with the potential to achieve multiple outcomes – not only for parents and children in the present, but for future generations

Final thoughts

It could be argued that the socioeconomic benefits of family learning could help to ease the burden on government resources at the same time as improving families’ outcomes.

Clearly, the benefits of family learning to society and the government can’t be ignored – particularly with increasingly tight budgets.


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