As an MP I get to meet many wonderful people doing amazing work in our community, but I must admit that few visits fill me with as much joy as those to local schools. As minister for children, families and wellbeing, visiting schools helps me to see how things are working on the ground and gives me lots of food for thought to take back with me to my work at the Department for Education.
Various initiatives over recent years have kickstarted a national conversation about the importance of good mental health. But I’m very concerned about the rise in the number of children and young people who are suffering with anxiety and depression – particularly teenage girls. I went to Caterham School, where I sat down with Danielle and Paige, the heads of school, to talk about the impact of social media on self-esteem, body image and wellbeing.
Caterham’s deputy head of pastoral wellbeing, Ms Griffiths, is a trailblazer – she was one of the first wellbeing leads in the country – and we had a brilliant discussion on how schools can navigate these mental health challenges. Mr Jones, the headteacher, also gave me an update on their impressive work with other schools and young people in the community. Their Maths Plus programme, for example, offers targeted maths and English support to disadvantaged young people in Tandridge on weekends, alongside workshops to get parents more involved in the child’s learning: something I’m really passionate about.
It was a busy month in Westminster, as I launched our new Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) & Alternative Provision (AP) Improvement Plan. It contains a number of measures that will improve the experience of families here in East Surrey. We’re increasing the additional ‘high needs’ budget to £10 billion by 2024/25 (a more than 50% increase since 2019), and we’re setting out new national standards and best practice guides, starting with autism, speech & language and mental health & wellbeing, because families should know exactly what sort of support they can expect for their child. We’re also training thousands more early years SEN Coordinators to identify children who need extra support.
Just before I launched the plan I visited Sunnydown School, a school that helps boys with special educational and complex needs grow into independent, resilient and capable young men. I had a wide-reaching and incredibly helpful discussion with Paul Jensen, the headteacher, on SEND funding, mental health support for his students, Ofsted and the recruitment and retention of staff in specialist settings.
We also had some fantastic news in the Budget, with a massive boost in funding for childcare. We’re extending the entitlement of 30 hours of free childcare per week to working parents of children over nine months old, increasing the hourly rates for nursery providers to help them stay afloat, and changing the rules so that parents on Universal Credit will have their costs paid upfront rather than in arrears.
This is the most radical change to childcare policy in over a decade.