Carnegie Education

Mental Health in the Early Years and in Primary Schools

Schools can play a significant role in reducing mental ill health in children and young people but this is a sticking plaster which masks the underlying causes of poor mental health.

Published on 13 May 2019

According to the Mental Health Foundation:

A growing body of evidence, mainly from high-income countries, has shown that there is a strong socioeconomic gradient in mental health, with people of lower socioeconomic status having a higher likelihood of developing and experiencing mental health problems. In other words, social inequalities in society are strongly linked to mental health inequalities.

(Mental Health Foundation, 2016: 57)

Thus, socio-economic disadvantage acts as a psychosocial stressor and can have a detrimental impact on children’s mental health and wellbeing. It is also associated with worse parental mental health, which is, in turn, a strong risk factor for poor child mental health and wellbeing (Education Policy Institute, 2018). Additionally, adverse childhood experiences, including experiences of abuse, neglect and parental conflict have a known and significant detrimental effect on children and young people’s mental health. These include trauma, poor attachment, parental alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, neglect and abuse (House of Commons, 2018). Statistics illustrate the extent of the problem:

  • 8% of children aged 5-10 have a diagnosable mental health disorder, compared to nearly 12% of 11-15-year olds.
  • There are approximately 460,000 referrals per year to children and young people's mental health services;
  • Less than 50% of these go on to receive treatment.
  • In 2016/17 the average wait for treatment in a children and young people’s mental health service was 12 weeks.

(DfE /DoH, 2017)

Evidence also suggests the children in the early years experience mental ill health and that boys are more at risk than girls:

  • In 2017, 6.8 per cent of boys aged 2-4 years had mental ill health;
  • In 2017, 4.2 per cent of girls aged 2-4 years had mental ill health.

(NHS Digital, 2018)


  • 93,000 children live in care;
  • 24,300 children are in need of protection from neglect;
  • 1 in 20 children experience sexual abuse;
  • 50,000 children are in need of protection from abuse;
  • 42 per cent of marriages end in divorce;
  • It is estimated that 130,000 children live in homes with a high risk of domestic violence.

(Roffey, 2016)

It would appear that the urgent priority is to tackle poverty. Schools can play a significant role in reducing mental ill health in children and young people but this is a sticking plaster which masks the underlying causes of poor mental health. Addressing poverty and adverse childhood experiences must be the government’s key priority if it is determined to ‘correct this historic injustice’ (DfE/DoH, 2017: 2). In its Green Paper, the government has acknowledged that ‘Mental ill-health costs individuals, and society, dearly’ (DfE/DoH, 2017: 2). However, transferring this problem onto schools without addressing the root causes will not solve the problem.


  • Department for Education (DfE) (2017), Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage Setting the standards for learning, development and care for children from birth to five, DfE.
  • Department for Education and Department of Health (DfE / DoH), (2017), Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision: a Green Paper, DfE, DoH.
  • Education Policy Institute, (2018),
  • House of Commons (2018). The Government’s Green Paper on mental health: failing a generation, House of Commons Education and Health and Social Care Committees.
  • Mental Health Foundation (MHF). (2016). Fundamental Facts About Mental Health 2016. Mental Health Foundation: London.
  • NHS Digital (2018),
  • Roffey, S. (2016), Building a case for whole-child, whole school wellbeing in challenging contexts, Educational & Child Psychology, 33 (2) 30-42.

Samuel Stones

Part-time Lecturer / Carnegie School Of Education

Samuel is a Lecturer and Associate Researcher at Leeds Beckett University and a Head of Year and Associate Leader at a secondary school and sixth form. He also holds a national training role with a large multi-academy Trust.

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