School leaders want Government to address surge in pupil Covid-related anxiety

Press Release

Wednesday 14 July 2021

New research in schools serving predominantly deprived populations by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), suggests that schools are experiencing an increase in pupils with mental health issues, social distancing is posing a variety of challenges to classroom teaching, and that school leaders feel the Government’s approach to learning recovery is misconceived.

Today, NFER published a policy briefing, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, highlighting the results of in-depth qualitative interviews with senior school leaders to understand the continuing implications of the Covid-19 pandemic for pupils’ education in mainstream schools.  

Building on NFER’s 2020 Covid-19 school surveys, it provides insights into schools’ and pupils’ needs. The interviews were conducted in May and June 2021 with 50 senior leaders from mainstream primary and secondary schools, serving predominantly deprived communities across England. We know from our previous work and other evidence that these schools and pupils have been most seriously affected by the pandemic.

This is one of two separate policy briefings focussing on the impact of Covid-19 on teaching and learning; and pupils’ wellbeing and mental health. The second briefing, based on research by ASK Research with support from NFER, focuses on special schools and is also published today.

Both briefings reveal interim findings, with the full reports planned for release in autumn 2021


Mainstream schools’ findings
The over-riding message from the senior school leaders who took part, is that they need the funding, support and autonomy to make decisions in the best interests of their pupils. They also call on the Government to provide clear guidance on future plans for assessment and accountability, and to take urgent action to free up capacity in critical health and social services for children and their families.


Key findings include:

  • Though most pupils have been back in school full time since 8th March 2021, education is hardly back to normal. Schools are supporting children to recover both academically and in terms of their wellbeing, but this is a long-term undertaking made more challenging by measures to reduce Covid-19 infection.
  • Most senior leaders report that some of their pupils are suffering from Covid-related anxiety. Concerningly, a substantial minority report an increase in incidents of self-harm. Schools are putting measures in place to promote pupils’ emotional and mental health, and would like to do more. They cannot always get the support they need from specialist services, such as Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), speech and language and social services.
  • School leaders say that the pupils most affected by the pandemic were already vulnerable, including those with challenging home circumstances and special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). However, wellbeing and mental health issues are affecting pupils not previously identified as vulnerable too.
  • Some senior leaders say that pupils’ behaviour is good or better than before, but some report an increase in incidents of poor behaviour and lack of self-control.
  • Most senior leaders say that social distancing is posing a variety of challenges to the quality of teaching and learning. For example, teachers are unable to circulate round their classes to provide feedback on pupils’ work and there is little interaction between pupils.
  • Many senior leaders report a reduction in enrichment activities (e.g. creative arts, sports and trips), largely due to infection control measures. They want to provide more variety and enjoyment for pupils, both within the school day and through extra-curricular activities.
  • School leaders feel the Government’s current approach to learning recovery is misconceived. They see the emphasis on academic ‘catch up’ as unhelpful and want an equal focus on emotional/wellbeing recovery and enrichment alongside academic catch up. They want the Government to provide adequate funding for recovery over a period of years and to allow schools to use it flexibly.


The policy briefing makes the following recommendations on wellbeing and mental health

  • The Government needs urgently to review the provision in place to address the surge in Covid-related anxiety and mental health issues among children and young people. Further research could help to quantify quite how much additional funding and support is needed across the country; however we can be clear, given existing surveys and the consensus in this study, that there is a case for action now.
  • The Government should consider how best to support schools – particularly those serving deprived communities – in providing health and wellbeing services as part of a joined-up plan.
  • Though the Government’s announcement of £79 million investment to help children access community mental health is welcome, there appears to be a need to increase investment in specialist mental health (CAMHS), speech and language and social care for children, young people and families, so they are not left without support.
  • The Department for Education should recognise the pressures that school staff are still facing and ensure that staff wellbeing and workload are properly considered in policy development.

Recommendations on infection control measures in schools include:

  • The harmful effects of social distancing and self-isolation on pupils’ education and wellbeing need to be understood and acknowledged. Schools will need time to reorganise and recover from these effects when the restrictions are lifted.
  • If it is necessary to impose stricter infection controls again, on either a local or national basis, the negative consequences for wellbeing and learning need to be mitigated as far as possible.
  • DfE and Ofsted need to do all in their power to enable schools to focus on all elements of the curriculum, including practical activities, and to provide a range of extra-curricular activities which enrich pupils’ learning experiences.

Recovery recommendations

  • ‘Catch-up’  funding should be viewed and provided more holistically – not confined to academic needs. Senior leaders want the freedom and flexibility to deploy funds to support their pupils in the most appropriate ways within their contexts – for example schools with many anxious pupils may need to devote more resources to wellbeing support. There needs to be a long-term proactive assessment and support plan – focused on all affected cohorts as they move through the system. This should encompass curriculum, assessment and accountability; and include plans for a variety of different scenarios (e.g. in the event of further periods of school closure).


Caroline Sharp, Research Director at NFER, and Co-Author of the mainstream schools’ policy briefing said:

“Despite it being over three months since all children have returned to school full-time, our insights shows that mainstream education has not gone back to normal, due to the continuing impact of the pandemic. 

“Most senior leaders we interviewed have expressed their widespread concern for their pupils’ wellbeing and mental health. They want to support their pupils, but are struggling to do so without adequate funding and being able to rely on specialist services. That is why they are calling on the Government to provide them and critical support services, with the necessary funding, and give them the independence, to enable them to best support the needs of young people.”


Josh Hillman, Director of Education at the Nuffield Foundation said:

"Whilst missed learning during the various partial school closures is of great concern, this report shows that pupils’ well-being and mental health have also been affected.

“The findings echo Nuffield-funded research from the ISER at the University of Essex which found that school closures had a significant negative impact on children’s mental health.

“Social distancing in schools has made interactions between teachers and pupils and group work much harder and enrichment beyond the core curriculum has been more limited.

“In addition to tackling the academic impact of the pandemic, additional resource and support is needed to help schools respond to the significant challenges their students are facing in terms of anxiety and other mental health issues."