Increase in concerns over pupils self-harming reported by school governors

An increase in concerns over pupils self-harming in the last year has been reported by school governing boards.

Governing boards, trustees and academy committee members noted a rise in self-harm concerns, with one governor saying there was a “high rate” of children self-harming, in the National Governance Association (NGA)’s latest survey.

It comes amid increased worry over safeguarding concerns since the beginning of the Covid pandemic by school governing boards, with neglect, domestic abuse and bullying, including cyberbullying, highlighted as the top three issues.

More than 55% of the 2,695 people who responded to the survey reported an increase in safeguarding concerns, while only 3% reported a decrease.

The impact of school closures due to the pandemic has played a role in these trends, the NGA said as 71% of governing boards reported a rise in safeguarding issues when asked as part of 2022’s annual study.

Sam Henson, director of policy and communications at the NGA, says in a report from the Annual Governance Survey 2023 that the “aftershocks” from the pandemic continue to affect schools in 2023.

He says: “The survey identifies the challenges schools and trusts across England face and the strategic priorities governing boards set.

“While three years ago we grappled with the unprecedented tribulations of a global pandemic, only a naive observer would suggest that these pressures now only reside in the history books.

“The truth is, this year’s findings spotlight how schools and trusts continue to contend with a series of aftershocks, compounded by emergent obstacles.”

Neglect and domestic abuse were key concerns for primary schools, while online abuse emerged as a significant worry for secondary schools.

Bullying, both traditional and cyberbullying, featured across both primary and secondary phases.

When asked to highlight their individual experiences as part of the survey, those who responded said “self-harm and other mental health concerns are our largest and most growing concern by far” and “there is also a high rate of students self-harming”.

Meanwhile, methods that schools and trusts are engaging in to support students’ mental health and wellbeing have declined since 2022, with almost all methods of support dropping by at least 6%, the survey found.

The increasing concerns around pupils’ mental health and wellbeing have placed a strain on external services which continues to be felt in schools and trusts across the country, Mr Henson said.

Governing boards said their pupils are often faced with long waiting times and their school/trust has insufficient access to resources.

Behavioural challenges within schools and trusts have also seen a spike, as 68% of those who responded reported an increase in challenging student behaviour over the past 12 months.

A stock image of a school student.
Balancing the budget remains the top challenge for all school and trust boards (PA)

This trend was particularly evident in secondary schools (84%), all-through schools (77%) and alternative provisions (78%).

More than half of all schools reported an increase in challenging behaviour.

Those who responded said: “The challenges of worsening behaviour in society following lockdown and the associated increase in exclusions”; “The pressure the headteacher and senior leadership team are under due to finances, workload stress and burnout of staff, continued pressures after Covid with attendance and behavioural/pastoral issues”; and “Our main issues in school are around attendance/behaviour…”

Other findings from the survey include: Balancing the budget remains the top challenge for all school and trust boards (52%) – fewer than two in 10 said they were financially sustainable in the medium to long term; more than a third of respondents (37%) said their school buildings were not in good condition; and satisfaction with the Government’s performance on education is at an all-time low among governing boards (9%).

Mr Henson said: “In the ever-changing post-pandemic educational landscape, one of our most important objectives must be to fortify the safeguarding of our children and young people.

“This year’s survey underscores the vital significance of sturdy policies, ongoing training and nurturing open channels of communication to tackle these concerns effectively.

“The 2023 Annual Governance Survey emphasises the need for both boards and leaders to give top priority to the professional growth and training of themselves and their staff. Strengthening safeguarding policies and adeptly managing challenging behaviour necessitates a multifaceted strategy that confronts the root causes.”

He added: “The voices of governing boards in 2023 reflect a largely consistent picture across regions and school types and they are all pretty clear on one thing – the situation isn’t good enough for children, families and staff.”

A Government spokesperson said: “We are supporting the expansion and transformation of mental health services through the NHS Long Term Plan, with investment of an extra £2.3 billion a year by March 2024.

“School leaders should ensure they have clear systems and processes in place for identifying possible mental health problems. To expand access to early mental health support, we are also increasing the number of Mental Health Support Teams from 398 to approximately 500 in 2024.”