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Education, mental wellbeing and the cost-of-living crisis: Bridging research and practice

Michelle Jayman, Researcher/Lecturer at University of Roehampton

The rising cost of living is causing high levels of stress and concern for millions of households. For educators, poverty is tangible in the growing numbers of hungry, cold and tired pupils arriving at schools across the UK. In a recent survey, 38 per cent of teachers reported that a third or more of their class were living in families struggling financially (Montacute, 2022).

Growing up in poverty takes a significant emotional toll on a child and is hugely detrimental to their wellbeing and learning outcomes. Emerging evidence shows that through and beyond the Covid-19 pandemic, child and adolescent mental health needs have increased dramatically, with no signs of abating in the short term (NHS Digital, 2023). We also know that children and young people in distress often seek help from trusted adults in school. Worryingly, vital services such as school counselling, therapy and mental health programmes are under increasing threat due to ever tighter budgets. Funding cuts, staff shortages and teacher burnout have all contributed to what one secondary school teacher describes as ‘a glaring gap’ in mental health provision for many pupils (Guardian, 2022).

‘Growing up in poverty takes a significant emotional toll on a child and is hugely detrimental to their wellbeing and learning outcomes.’

Measuring the costs facing schools, the Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that by 2024−25, school spending per pupil will still be three per cent lower than in 2010 (Sibieta, 2022). Indeed, providing timely and appropriate mental wellbeing support for pupils is a huge challenge for educators, and this is now aggravated by additional financial constraints. Addressing these widespread concerns was at the heart of our latest SIG conference: Education on the breadline: Mental wellbeing and the cost-of-living crisis. Expert voices from the frontline – teaching staff, practitioners, researchers and students – came together to share some of the latest research evidence on low-cost, preventative interventions and to discuss creative, solution-focused approaches for supporting learning communities in crisis.

Closing the ‘glaring gap’ in effective school mental wellbeing provision

While mental health support teams (MHSTs) continue to be deployed to strengthen existing services in schools, progress is frustratingly slow. The national target to cover just 35 per cent of schools in England by March 2024 leaves a sizeable gap in provision. Alongside the MHSTs rollout, the government strongly recommends that schools designate a senior mental health lead (SMHL). Although not a statutory requirement, every school is encouraged to have one in place by 2025. In reality, workload is a significant issue and detrimental to staff capacity to deliver on the remit. This can be further confounded by diminishing or zero budgets. To help counter these obstacles, SMHLs, and other school staff, must be empowered to introduce interventions that are low-cost, high-impact and supported by a robust evidence base. This requires building effective working relationships with external partner agencies, including researchers and intervention developers. One way of generating this type of initiative, and to bridge the research-to-practice gap, is through inclusive networking events such as our SIG conference.

Partnerships for transformation

Developing partnerships for transformation requires buy-in from all key stakeholders and recognising that mental health and wellbeing is ‘everyone’s business’. As academics and researchers we need to cultivate collaborations with practitioners and education leaders, and ensure our research is practical, accessible and supports the implementation of evidence-based interventions. We must also work closely with children and young people to ensure that they have a voice in intervention development, evaluation and implementation.

A real-world outcome of our recent conference was to initiate discourse which has helped to foster new collaborations between SMHLs and practitioners, researchers and intervention providers. Inevitably, programmes to improve mental health and wellbeing will have limited impact unless they are delivered as part of multi-component, systemic change. Strategies to improve the mental wellbeing of pupils need to be integral to a wider culture that supports and prioritises wellbeing for all. Through multiple stakeholders, including policymakers, working in partnership, we can create more efficient, equitable and resilient education systems which can better prepare for, respond to and recover from crises; and moreover, effectively support mental wellbeing for the whole learning community.

More information about the socio-emotional interventions and a recording of the conference can be found on the BERA website here.


Guardian. (2022, May 25). Letters: Schools need urgent funding to tackle child mental health crisis.

Montacute, R. (2022). The cost-of-living crisis and its impact on education. Sutton Trust.

NHS Digital. (2023). Mental health of children and young people surveys.

Sibieta, L. (2022). School spending and costs: The coming crunch. Institute for Fiscal Studies.