The Guardian view on children’s mental health: ministers must pay up | Editorial

If Dame Rachel de Souza wants to help young people, she should go all out to boost funding for schools

A new education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, is in post, and the first big piece of work by the recently appointed children’s commissioner for England, Dame Rachel de Souza, is on his desk. Parents and everyone else who cares about young people can only hope that their partnership proves powerful enough to win the resources that the sector desperately needs.

The Big Ask survey sought the views of children themselves, and received more than half a million responses. The standout issue was mental health, with one in five pupils aged 9-17 reporting concerns, and older teenage girls in poorer areas among the most vulnerable. Dame Rachel’s pitch to ministers, ahead of the autumn spending review, is for a “new deal” for schools in England, incorporating a major boost in funding and increased focus on pastoral support.

With her close links to the Conservative party and the academy movement, in which she had a key role as chief executive of the Inspiration Trust, Dame Rachel is probably in as strong a position as anyone to make the case for more money. Whether the prime minister and chancellor listen to her will no doubt come down to their political calculations about what their voters want.

So far she has opted to play nice rather than tough, by refusing to name a figure. But she backed a call by school leaders, including the main academy heads, for a “bare minimum” package of £5.8bn over three years.

After Gavin Williamson’s disastrous tenure at the Department for Education, there are high hopes that Mr Zahawi will represent at least some improvement. As a former children’s minister who is seen to have made a success of the vaccine rollout, he will be keen to impress in his first cabinet post. But while a more respectful tone towards schools, and a greater level of competence and attention to detail, are desirable, without funding there is a limit to what can be tried, let alone achieved. Schools have been badly let down by Boris Johnson’s government. The refusal to fund even half of the £15bn recovery package recommended by Sir Kevan Collins in the summer, leading to his resignation, was an insulting misjudgment.

So far, even the catch-up funding that has been offered has been patchy in its effects, with many questions over the choice of outsourced tutors rather than additional funding for schools. While two consecutive years of grade inflation no doubt calmed fears about lost learning, and many pupils have shown themselves to be resourceful and able to cope, the long-term effects of the pandemic will not be known for some time. Meanwhile, there is acute concern about thousands of children who were already vulnerable before the pandemic, with a recent review of council services describing them as “held together by Sellotape”. The £20 cut to weekly benefits will make a painful situation worse for many families, and there is no point pretending that some extra school counsellors will remedy this. Still, Dame Rachel’s focus on mental health is welcome, as is her recognition that young people are entitled to expect more from the government.

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Editorial

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