30 Apr 2019

'P babies, aggression, bullying': students' mental health concerns up - survey

2:12 pm on 30 April 2019

Teenagers' mental health is a major worry for secondary schools along with government funding and the supply of good teachers, a survey by the Council for Educational Research has found.

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Photo: 123RF

The survey is conducted every three years and a senior researcher from the council, Linda Bonne, said responses to last year's survey showed 62 percent of principals reported trouble getting help for students with mental health problems from external agencies, a "sharp increase" on 36 percent in 2015.

Dr Bonne said many principals also cited vulnerable students as one of the biggest issues they faced.

"Schools are dealing with increasingly complex student needs and are finding it more difficult to address those and feel they are doing a good job," she said.

"Sixty-six percent of principals identified providing support for vulnerable students was a major issue facing their secondary school. Two-thirds of principals, that's huge."

Dr Bonne said the survey found that most teachers could refer vulnerable students for help, but only 30 percent of teachers had training to help recognise mental health warning signs in their students and among decile 1-2 schools that figure fell to 19 percent.

"Overall the need for more support for students' wellbeing was most obvious in decile 1 and 2 schools," the survey report said.

'Surviving' abusive behaviour of students

The survey also found that previous improvements in student behaviour had stopped.

Twenty-two percent of principals said student behaviour was a major problem, up from 15 percent in 2015, and 18 percent of teachers said students often caused serious disruption, up from 11 percent in 2015 and 2012.

Teachers' comments in the survey highlighted some of the problems they experienced.

"My rural decile 1 has just started to see 'P babies' arriving with serious behavioural/social/learning problems, including serious violence," wrote one teacher.

"We deal with huge issues on a day to day level, e.g., sick kids, suicidal kids, bullying, aggression, no gear, no food, kicked out of home, not wanting to learn," wrote another.

"I spend a lot of time not actually teaching but surviving the abusive behaviour of my students."

"The real pressing issues for myself and other senior managers are the increasing types of problems students are bringing to the school. We are dealing with major social issues that we are ill equipped to solve and we also carry a vast amount of disturbing information and have no outlet to offload this burden."

Support for vulnerable students a major issue

The survey asked principals to name the major issues facing their schools and 73 percent cited recruiting quality teachers, 66 percent said providing support for vulnerable students, and 64 percent said funding, up from about half of principals in 2015.

"The proportion of principals who report their staffing entitlement is sufficient continues to decline. In 2018, 13 percent report this, down from 24 percent in 2015 and the lowest proportion since 2003," the report said.

It said worries about funding had increased and were evident across schools of all deciles.

"In 2018, 8 percent of principals consider their school's government funding is enough to meet its needs. Sixty percent of principals said they had to reduce spending in 2018, up from 46 percent in 2015," the report said.

"Over half (55 percent) of all principals responding say their school relies on attracting international students so that it can provide a good breadth of courses, very similar to the proportion in 2015."

The report said 86 percent of principals said some students were left out of co-curricular experiences if their parents were asked to pay for them.

The report said support for the NCEA qualification had dropped in all the groups surveyed. Among teachers, support for the qualification dropped from 69 percent in 2015 to 60 percent last year, among principals it fell from 95 to 89 percent, and among parents it dropped from 55 to 50 percent.

Eighty-one percent of the teachers who responded to the survey said they enjoyed their job, but the number that said their morale was good dropped from 69 percent to 62 percent, and the number who said their morale was poor had increased from 8 percent in 2015 to 13 percent last year.

"Around one-third of the teachers reported fair and manageable workloads, and manageable stress levels. More than a quarter indicated their high workload meant they felt they were unable to do justice to their students," the report said.

The report said 167 principals responded to the survey as did 705 teachers, 138 trustees from 97 schools, and 508 parents from 121 schools.

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