There is no government-led national bereavement policy for schools despite the equivalent of every classroom in the UK containing at least one child who has lost a parent or sibling, according to a report into the consequences of childhood bereavement in the British school system.
The report, by the Cambridge University faculty of education for the Winston’s Wish charity, found that more than 41,000 children under 18 in the UK lose a parent every year. When deaths of siblings are included, that number increases to at least 45,000 every year.
“Childhood bereavement is a huge social issue that can lead to serious long-term consequences for not only the individual but for wider society and – ultimately – the economy,” said Prof Colleen McLaughlin, the director of educational innovation at Cambridge University. “It is therefore a huge issue that there is currently no government-led national bereavement policy in place for schools – where bereaved children spend most of their waking hours.”
While all childhood bereavements are traumatic, some types of death come with added complexities, the report found. Some studies show that a child bereaved by suicide is three times more likely to die by suicide. The report also found that at age 30, those bereaved in childhood have an increased risk of being unemployed and are more likely to report that they “never get what they want out of life”.
The study found that that although schools say bereavement support is a high priority, provision is “patchy” and “random”, with staff admitting they lack the skills and capacity to help grieving children.
“Eighty-five per cent of schools do not have a planned holistic bereavement response despite our findings that teachers and schools are crying out for guidance, training and support, so that they are properly equipped to deal bereavement issues within the school community,” said McLaughlin.
Phoebe was nine when her mother, Lesley, died aged 43 after a long illness. “One of my most painful memories after I lost my mum was being made to sit in a Mother’s Day assembly when I was 10 years old, followed by making Mother’s Day cards.
“I had felt alone before, but this feeling of utter loneliness was new to me – I had no mummy to make this card for and my school had left me to drown with this knowledge becoming more and more painfully apparent,” said Phoebe, who is now 20.
The research also found that childhood bereavement is socially biased: children from disadvantaged homes who are already facing challenges in their lives are at increased risk of losing a loved one.
It also found that 20% of bereaved participants reported that they had not talked to anyone about their loss. This directly correlated with an increased risk of having participated in bullying or assaults.
To support schools and teachers, Winston’s Wish has created a strategy for schools and a guide to supporting grieving children and young people in education. “But what we also need is for wider society and, most importantly, government to recognise the importance of the issue, so that we can better support schools in supporting grieving children,” McLaughlin said. “We hope this report will provide a wake-up call.”
The Department for Education said: “The death of a loved one can be devastating for anyone, and we expect schools to support a pupil who suffers a bereavement.
“The department’s mental health and behaviour guidance for schools includes links to sources of information and support, including on bereavement and other traumatic events.
“Where children need more specialist support, it is important that other services work together. The NHS long-term plan sets out how specialist mental health support will be increased by 2023-24 with mental health support teams linked to schools and colleges.”