Skip to content
  • General news
  • Media coverage

Children and young people give thumbs up to support from fellow students, study reveals

A Department for Education funded pilot scheme which established peer support programmes in schools, colleges and youth clubs has been well-received by children and young people in schools and youth clubs.

In a new approach to improving pupil’s wellbeing, mental health experts at the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families organised training for 100 schools, colleges and youth organisations to set up peer support programmes in their settings and identify how structured peer-to-peer mentoring programmes might help children and young people support each other’s mental health and wellbeing.

Although there was variability in approaches across settings, volunteer mentors were matched up with ‘mentees’ from the same school, college or youth organisation based on a range of factors including shared interests, age and gender. Mentors and mentees, aged between 5 and 18 years old, would then meet up as pairs or in groups or as playground buddies. Those who participated reported the value of peer mentors in ‘just being there’ and being approachable when needed, particularly boosting mentees’ confidence in their abilities and self-worth as well as creating a space to speak openly without being judged or patronised.

The evaluation, carried out by Ecorys UK largely focused on process and was published to mark Children’s Mental Health Week. It also showed most pilot leaders - 84% - said they were planning to continue running a peer support programme after the pilot, and all but one of the remaining schools were open to continuing this.

In addition to the positive feedback from mentees, young mentors reported having developed valuable skills including communication, leadership, and empathy skills, and many valued having been trusted with responsibility. It shows the positive contribution these programmes can make to schools, with adequate staff supervision in place.

Education Minister Nick Gibb said: “School or college should be a place where pupils feel safe and supported to learn, so it’s encouraging to see the number of schools recognising the value of this kind of project, where pupils look out for their classmates’ wellbeing through simple conversations.

“Understanding what works will help us improve the support available for every pupil. Studies like these are one of many ways we are promoting positive wellbeing in schools, including through the introduction of compulsory health education from September, teaching pupils what good mental health looks like and how to seek help when needed.”

Professor Peter Fonagy, CEO of the Anna Freud Centre, said: “Very often children feel better helped by confiding in each other than they do when sharing with adults. The deep sense of trust that they can have in their friends, and their willingness to help each other, is of inestimable value. Peer support provides a way of encouraging the trust and support that creates communities, which in turn help children to feel accepted and included. Feeling comfortable about talking and sharing their emotions can reduce conflict and create important bonds that can last a lifetime. Peer support is an often untapped resource to support wellbeing. We need more of it.”

The study’s findings build on wide ranging programmes already running in schools, including the introduction of mental health support teams, currently being rolled-out across 72 sites, with the aim to reach up to 25% of schools and colleges in the country by 2023, as well as the Department for Education’s ‘Link’ Programme, bridging the gap between in-school and external support for children and young people.

The research shows that peer support could play a positive role in schools and provide value for money. However, more research is needed to better understand the full impact on pupils’ mental health. It also suggests more work should be done to tackle stigma and promote positive attitudes around mental health in schools to encourage more parents and children to participate.

The evaluation looked at a number of different models of peer support programmes developed by schools in collaboration with children and young people. It also found a considerable demand for peer support in schools, colleges and youth clubs taking part.

Jane Hornby, Designated Safeguarding Lead at Landau Forte College in Derby, said: “Peer mentoring is a valuable and well established support mechanism in College. For the younger students the mentors provide an academic, social and behavioural role model of similar age who they can relate, and the older students gain a sense of responsibility and a positive boost to their self- esteem by supporting their peers. One mentor said how rewarding it is to use his experiences to help someone else.

“We’re so proud of our peer mentors and their achievements. The success of the programme speaks for itself - this years' cohort of trainees includes students who were mentored themselves and who are keen to provide that support back to others.”

Free training and resources for schools, colleges and community organisations are available to develop a Peer Support Programme supporting mental health and wellbeing.