Researchers warned that pupils are facing a “double hit” to their educational prospects as the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted their learning and affected their mental health.
Children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and those whose mental health has been affected most by the pandemic, are likely to face the greatest challenges catching up at school, researchers said.
Young people who had mental health difficulties at secondary school were over three times more likely not to secure five or more A*-C (or 9 to 4) GCSE grades, including maths and English, than their peers, according to the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen).
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The research linked a study of the mental health of 1,100 children aged 11-14 to their subsequent GCSE results using the National Pupil Database for England.
It found that mental health difficulties adversely affected boys’ educational attainment more than girls.
After accounting for the effects of a range of socioeconomic, school-based and parenting factors known to predict lower attainment, young people with mental difficulties were still two times as likely to not reach the benchmark of five GCSE grades A*-C (or 9-4) including maths and English.
The study, published in the BMJ Open journal, suggests poor mental health and lower grades at GCSE were more common for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, but mental health difficulties affected young people’s GCSE grades regardless of their background.
Researchers said boosting mental health can narrow the attainment gap at GCSE level by improving the performance of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The report said: “Improving mental health could possibly increase average attainment levels within this group to a greater extent than within the majority population who are not disadvantaged.
“The potential effect at a population level would be to reduce the average difference in attainment between socioeconomic groups, and narrow educational and consequent social inequalities.”
Dr Neil Smith, who led the study at NatCen, said: “As the school year comes to an end, young people are facing a double hit to their educational prospects.
“First, disruption to schooling caused by the pandemic has directly impacted on learning.
“Second, the pandemic has adversely affected many young peoples’ mental health, and it’s likely those whose mental health was affected the most by the pandemic will face greater difficulties in making up for learning time that’s been lost.”
A Government spokesperson said: “We are prioritising support for children’s mental health and wellbeing alongside academic recovery, and have announced £3 billion to boost learning, including almost £950 million in additional funding for schools, which they can use with some flexibility to support pupils needs, such as mental health and wellbeing.
“We are also investing millions specifically for more mental health teams working with schools and colleges, including funding to train a senior mental health staff lead in up to 7,800 settings and training from mental health experts to improve how staff, pupils and parents cope with additional pressures, bereavement, anxiety, stress or other emotional responses to the pandemic.”