An evaluation of the Peer Support for Mental Health and Wellbeing Pilots, which have been running since 2018, found that while the programme was met with “considerable enthusiasm” from young people interested in the peer mentor roles, there was less interest in actually receiving help.
The DfE launched the pilots, run by the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, in 100 schools and colleges across East Sussex, Ipswich, Derby, Oldham, West Midlands and Bradford – all regions that have been designated as "opportunity areas" as part of government efforts to improve social mobility through education.
The evaluation report found that there was a "considerable appetite" for the initiative among participating schools, with a "real sense of unmet need", with many reporting that they were limited in what they could offer to young people below the threshold for clinical intervention.
However, in contrast, young people in need of support – mentees – were not always forthcoming, with young people found to often be more reluctant to self-refer.
Survey research conducted as part of the evaluation found that non-participants wanted greater reassurances about privacy and confidentiality, clearer signposting, and discretion to be able to choose their peer mentor.
"Typically, the programme only took off within a given setting where a tipping point was reached," the report states.
"This usually happened where young people with positive experiences of peer support acted as advocates and spread the news, and/or where there was a critical mass of awareness of the programme among staff.
"An initial development phase was often needed in larger settings in particular. This usually involved campaigns and awareness-raising, and work to secure the backing of senior managers, teachers and pastoral staff who were in a position to signpost young people."
The report also concluded that levels of supervision for peer support requires careful consideration.
"It is telling that, while almost all pilot organisations planned to offer supervision to peer mentors, many struggled to do so in practice, while a few reported that they had not set a supervisory framework in place,” the report states.
"The staff interviews showed that the reasons varied from a perception that formal supervision was not necessary, to challenges with staffing capacity.
"In some instances, supervision was planned but proved unsustainable on a week-to-week basis around the schedules of the school-based professionals overseeing the pilots.
"Clearly, there is some potential cause for concern if capacity issues are a main factor determining the level of oversight set in place for peer support within some schools, rather than judgments about acceptable risk."
Meanwhile, the evaluation found a mixed picture regarding outcomes. On the one hand, young people’s self-reports in case study work and responses to survey questions were “overwhelmingly positive” regarding the personal and social benefits of taking part in the programme.
Mentors frequently reported having acquired or improved their communication, leadership, and empathy skills, and many were found to value having been trusted with responsibility.
And mentees often reported they felt happier, better supported, and better able to deal with the issues that had led them to seek support.
However, the self-reported outcomes did not translate to statistically significant improvements in social and emotional wellbeing or resilience.
Earlier this month it emerged that the proportion of schools in England employing mental health counsellors has nearly doubled since 2016.