Published: 16:38, 23 February 2021
| Updated: 16:41, 23 February 2021
County education chiefs say they need to act quickly to address the rise amid concerns the prolonged absence from classrooms is not only affecting learning but is having an adverse impact on youngsters.
In a recent message to schools, Kent County Council’s education director Matt Dunkley said: “It is quite clear that the impact of Covid has turned children’s lives upside down with disruption to their education, limited access to families, friends and not being able to simply play and engage with activities to enrich their lives.”
He said many studies confirmed that during the pandemic children had been “stressed, anxious and unhappy” and that a “staggering” one-in-six now had a probable mental health condition, a rise of 50% when compared to previous surveys.
He told schools: “We need to move fast to develop a response to this mental health crisis.”
Mr Dunkley said KCC was putting together a “focused and ambitious” recovery plan to help children to “regain their lost education”.
The government has launched an online training scheme for people who work with or care for children, aimed at providing practical and emotional support to those affected by the pandemic.
The ‘psychological first aid’ training will, according to the government, equip teachers and others to “better identify those children that are in distress and provide support to help them feel safe, connected and able to take steps to help themselves during the pandemic or other crisis situations”.
The disruption caused by the pandemic has also raised concerns that it could see the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers widen.
According to an analysis of exam data, poorer children in Kent are nearly two years behind their peers by the time they complete their GCSEs.
The analysis of results in 2019 says the gap in secondary schools in Kent is 22.4 months - only a marginal improvement on the 23.3 months in the previous year.
The data shows that the gap in primary schools in Kent is on average 9.8 months, raising questions about why there is such an increase in secondary schools.
The figures are in a report by the Education Policy Institute, which examines how well schools are performing in improving social mobility.
The government has set out plans to help schools make up ground on learning loss with summer school classes although it is not clear how they would work and it is likely to be a voluntary scheme.
The chief executive of the Fair Education Alliance, Sam Butters, who commissioned the research, said: “Unless there is change to the system that is fundamentally unfair to those from poor backgrounds we are not going to make progress. It is a wake-up call especially given the Covid-19 pandemic.”
But she downplayed the suggestion that the standards gap was wholly connected to Kent’s selective system, saying that the issue was more complex.
"There is a lot of great work being done in Kent and elsewhere to tackle this but this report is a rallying call to get behind these interventions even more,” she said.
According to a survey by NHS Digital, the proportion of children experiencing a probable mental disorder has increased over the past three years, from one-in-nine in 2017 to one-in-six in July 2020.