POLITICAL rhetoric about the failure to close the educational attainment gap is unhelpful while Scotland is emerging from the pandemic, a leading psychologist has said.

While a focus on “attainment” is “very important”, the mental health and well being of children and young people have to take priority, according to educational psychologist Dr Sabrina Collins.

She told the Sunday National there had been a marked increase in the number of pupils suffering from anxiety, low mood and developmental delays and, as a result, the attainment gap had grown wider.

Dr Collins, pictured right, said schools could not be expected to close the attainment gap during the pandemic as any political focus on it would just add to the pressure already being experienced by beleaguered teachers.

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“There is a lot of talk about closing the poverty related attainment gap which is actually an impossible task; the pandemic has increased that gap so we can’t be expecting schools to have closed it,” said Dr Collins. “It is a hard enough job for them as it is.”

“Focusing on attainment is not helpful at all. We also need to adjust our expectations because of what our children have experienced,” she said. “Things like standardised assessments are not particularly useful when our children and young people have had long periods out of school. Children are back in the buildings but it is not just back to normal although the staff are doing a great job in creating an atmosphere of calmness.”

Dr Collins comments came after a children’s charity told MSPs that parents are at “the end of their tether” over the mental health of their kids.

“We’ve seen children’s challenges around their anxiety and mental and emotional health being made worse,” said Mary Glasgow (below), chief executive of Children 1st at a meeting of Holyrood’s Health, Social Care and Sport Committee.

The National: Children 1st Chief Executive, Mary Glasgow..

This was backed by Dr Collins, who said the vulnerable had become even more vulnerable as a result of the pandemic and problems were surfacing in families that would normally have coped.

“With schools returning we have certainly seen an increase in anxiety and low mood in young people of all ages,” she said. “Lots of young people are struggling to return and engage with the curriculum. Some of them did not cope well with lockdown and are showing behavioural challenges within schools because they are anxious or have missed so much. The number of children requiring support has increased significantly.”

The pandemic would continue to have a “significant effect” but the extent of this may not be known for some time and would last longer for children and young people than adults, she predicted.

In the youngest children it can be difficult at the moment to determine whether developmental delays were because of the pandemic’s impact or if they are due to neurodevelopmental conditions like autism.

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“It is the same with some difficulties with learning – how much of is it because children have missed some of the key teaching?” Dr Collins asked.

She said the levels children would be expected to reach had to shift as a result.

“We need to adjust our expectations and give them more time. It is not necessarily about catching up, but about moving forward from where they are at the moment. Many children who cope well generally and have supportive families will still do well but I expect that gap between them and the more vulnerable will increase.”

Ongoing restrictions are not only affecting education but also hobbies and sports, possibly leading children to lose interest, Dr Collins pointed out.

“A lot of fun has been taken out of these extra-curricular activities because of the restrictions,” she said. “Because of social distancing, many are no longer social events for children and young people and that will have an impact on their physical and mental health.”

Young people on flexible or lifestyle curriculums may also have been prevented from key activities like work experience, going to cafes, or going swimming.

“All these things are really important to help them develop life skills but have been curtailed or stopped by restrictions,” said Dr Collins.

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Time on social media has increased as physical activities have lessened, with younger children also relying on it for social contact and spending more time online that would have been the case pre-pandemic.

On a positive note, she said, there was a lot of good work being carried out in Scotland in relation to health and well-being, nurture and trauma informed practice. Health and wellbeing has been the priority for schools in their Covid recovery plans.

“If you speak to education colleagues in England a lot of them are very jealous of us – they say we are much further ahead in relation to understanding the impact of trauma on our children and young people and building our policies and services around that,” Dr Collins said.

“In many ways we have got it right. We are well aware of the disadvantaged in society and the need to put extra support in for them, focusing on health and wellbeing as well as attainment – but the difficulty is that there are more now in that bracket.”