Concerns have been raised over students’ mental health during a discussion by education leaders from across North Hampshire.

Figures including Nick Everett, director of IT at Queen Mary’s College and the chair of governors at Abbotts Ann Primary School; Matt, the assistant headteacher of The Hurst; the economic issues policy officer for the Joint Public Issues Team, Paul Morrison; and youth MP and Harrow Way School student Dmitrijs Meiksans discussed a range of issues surrounding digital education during Covid.

In particular, mental health, and the impacts of online learning on anxiety, featured heavily, with current levels of support described as “shocking”.

“We are now seeing, and we will see, a rise in social anxiety amongst our young people,” said Matt, “and I think that’s been created by lengthy periods of lockdown and has led to students missing those opportunities.

“I think we have a big journey ahead of us to support our students through this”.

The comments were made during the round table discussion called Digital Inclusion, Education and Home Schooling: Leaving No-One Behind, which was organised by Judith Davey-Cole. It addressed a number of topics, including the differing access to digital education.

“Lots of people say we’re all in the same boat, but we’re definitely not,” said Dmitrijs. “We’re in the same body of water but we’re in different boats. Some people have yachts, so in this scenario have brilliant Wi-Fi, iPhones, laptops and absolutely everything, and some people have tiny planks of wood that they’re sailing on and they’ve got bad Wi-Fi they can’t load lessons with.”

Nick concurred, saying: “Those best equipped for study, those are the ones who have fared best and have had a less academically significant impact. The least equipped have fared far worse than that and it’s massively widened pre-existing divisions, I would suggest.”

He said that following the “huge learning curve” of online learning, many aspects of it had been improved significantly. However, he said that there have been impacts surrounding social interaction.

He said: “Since we’ve been back our focus has been on identifying the gaps in the learning and understanding the individual effects on the students and their needs in light of that.

“It’s been a real mixed bag in terms of experiences.”

Matt agreed, saying: “I do personally feel that pupils are meant to be together. You cannot recreate that online and it’s really hard however you do that, and we were really aware, having got our students online, that some of our students were struggling.

“Someone in my class who I knew was very strong and very confident I had contacted after setting up an activity and asked if they wanted to be in the lesson when I got a heartbreaking email back saying: ‘I’m sorry sir, I just don’t want to unmute and I don’t want to turn my camera on today’.

“It really brought it home that this was a really confident, bright pupil who was going fabulously before Christmas and actually it this setting was very intimidating and quite difficult for some pupils.”

He said schools would see a rise in anxiety amongst students, something Dmitrijs recognised.

“Young people’s mental health during the pandemic has been impacted so, so much and I don’t think people realise how much it has been impacted.

“As we slowly emerge from lockdown people are going to be struggling around large groups of people and not keeping the social distance we’ve been told to keep for such a long time. Mental health is equally as important as physical health.”

Calls were made for changes in the way mental health and wellbeing handled in schools, with Matt saying that “all schools need to make sure that resilience building is built into their curriculum.”