Education leaders are calling for UK teachers to receive mandatory bereavement training following the staggering number of COVID-19 victims.
Training to support children who have lost loved ones is currently voluntary and only a small number of teachers benefit from it during their initial training or once they are enrolled in schools.
The charity Child Bereavement UK said this is despite 86% of teachers saying they have experienced a death in the school community, and nearly three quarters reporting teaching students affected by the death of someone significant.
Bereavement training for teachers is being driven by the Centre For The Art Of Dying Well at St Mary’s University in west London.
The university, which trains more than a thousand new teachers each year for primary and secondary roles, has made the sessions compulsory for new starters on their courses.
The course leader and director of the Institute of Education at St Mary’s, Anna Lise Gordon, said they aim to normalise conversations around death for children.
“They’re looking at things around the language we use to talk about death.
“People are incredibly awkward when talking about death. They often don’t know what to say. So therefore don’t say anything, which actually is probably the worst thing you can do in most cases.
“They also look at ideas for helping a young person be able to verbalise what they’re feeling, and things around how to make connections with other support agencies or charities for these young people.”
Ms Gordon told Sky News the “vital” training should be mandatory for new and current teachers across the UK.
“There’s a very large responsibility around pastoral care that comes as a teacher, and bodies of research that are showing us that a child or young person is going to learn more effectively, make better progress, achieve more, if they feel well, if they feel safe, and with trusted adults in a familiar environment.
“So for new teachers to have a real sense around those pastoral responsibilities, I think, is absolutely crucial.”
The university offers basic awareness sessions but Ms Gordon hopes to incorporate more detailed training in time, such as how to help a child struggling with the death of a loved one by suicide or assisting a child with learning difficulties to understand the death of someone close to them.”
St Claudine’s Catholic School For Girls benefits from an on site chaplain who handles delicate pastoral care such as this.
But headmistress Dr Louise McGowan said such support should be offered by all teachers.
Nineteen parents and carers of children at the school died with COVID-19 over the past year. The children needed support, especially as many were experiencing grief for the first time.
“I do feel that teachers need to have that confidence of knowing that they’ve been trained in how to support and care for children who are suddenly facing probably the biggest trauma of their lives,” Dr McGowan told Sky News.
“Schools are not just places for children to come and receive an academic education and to leave at the end of their time with a good set of qualifications.
“Schools are communities, schools are like an extended family. So pastoral care, in my view, is just as important as what we do to prepare our young children for life.”
Sixteen percent of calls to the Child Bereavement UK helpline over the past year have been from teachers seeking guidance around bereavement.
This rollout of training may help students who seek solace to find it in those they trust and respect the most.
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