Official Report: Minutes of Evidence

Committee for Education, meeting on Wednesday, 10 March 2021

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Chris Lyttle (Chairperson)
Mr Pat Sheehan (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Maurice Bradley
Miss Nicola Brogan
Mr Robbie Butler
Mr William Humphrey
Mr Daniel McCrossan
Mr Justin McNulty
Mr Robin Newton


Mr Odhran McAllister, Crisis Cafe
Ms Inez Murray, Crisis Cafe
Ms Bronagh Close, Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People Youth Panel
Ms Taisie Court, Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People Youth Panel
Mr Jack Dalzell, Northern Ireland Youth Forum
Ms Lauren McAreavey, Northern Ireland Youth Forum
Mr Jay Buntin, Pure Mental
Mr Theo Burton, Pure Mental
Mr Matthew Taylor, Pure Mental
Ms Sophia Armstrong, Secondary Students' Union for Northern Ireland
Mr Cormac Savage, Secondary Students' Union for Northern Ireland
Mr Morgan Shuttleworth, Secondary Students' Union for Northern Ireland

COVID-19 Pandemic Impact on the Mental and Physical Health of Children and Young People: Children and Young People's Voices

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): A very warm welcome to Cormac Savage, president of the Secondary Students' Union for Northern Ireland (SSUNI); Morgan Shuttleworth, mental health officer, SSUNI; Sophia Armstrong, community relations officer, SSUNI; Inez Murray, a representative of the Crisis Cafe; Odhran McAllister, a representative of the Crisis Cafe; Matthew Taylor, director and co-founder of Pure Mental; Theo Burton, policy officer for Pure Mental; Jay Buntin, director and co-founder of Pure Mental; Lauren McAreavey, a representative of the Northern Ireland Youth Forum; Jack Dalzell, a representative of the Northern Ireland Youth Forum (NIYF); Bronagh Close from the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY) Youth Panel; and Taisie Court, a representative of the NICCY Youth Panel. I give you all a really warm welcome today and advise you that we will give each group up to five minutes to make opening remarks. That will be followed by questions from members, which can be answered across the panel of witnesses.

We are really looking forward to hearing from you all today. We are acutely aware of the impact of the pandemic on children and young people. I take every opportunity that I can to thank the children and young people of Northern Ireland for the sacrifice that they have made to keep other people in our community safe and well throughout this pandemic. I thank you for the leadership that you have shown, and are showing, on so many issues on behalf of children and young people in Northern Ireland. We look forward to hearing from you today and to doing all that we can to support the leadership that you are showing and the efforts that you are making on behalf of children and young people in our community. We will start with Cormac Savage.

Mr Cormac Savage (Secondary Students' Union for Northern Ireland): Thank you. I am the president of the Secondary Students' Union for Northern Ireland and I am joined by Morgan and Sophia, our mental health and community relations officers.

For any of you on the Committee who may not have heard of the Secondary Students' Union, we were founded in August last year. We were set up just the day before thousands of students were handed A-level grades that were not true reflections of what they deserved. The first campaign that we ever ran was called Trust Our Teachers. That really set us up for what we, as a union, have been doing since. We have been developing the student voice and representing students on a lot of the issues that have come to light during the pandemic.

We are an organisation with 25,000 members across Northern Ireland, representing schools from every sector and county of Northern Ireland. This year, we have been working on loads of projects to represent young people. The main one, which is in the papers, is the mental health report. Morgan led on that, along with our mental health matters working group, and I will pass over to him in a second to give you some background on it.

There is one issue that we really want to drive home today that will be a massive issue for children and young people going forward. It only really came to light in the past couple of days, and it was mentioned a minute ago. That is the issue of this year's exams. We have campaigned since November for exams to be cancelled. We knew that there was no equitable way for exams to go ahead this year, and that children and young people would be put at a significant disadvantage if they were made to do them. We were very pleased when the Minister made a statement to the Assembly about what the alternative awarding arrangements would be, but it feels like what has been announced now is not in the spirit of what the Minister announced on the Floor of the Assembly and is, instead, exams by the back door. As young people and students are learning more about it, there is anxiety and fear. It is having an impact. When you boil it down, you see the possible situation of a GCSE student whose teacher has not done any formal assessment all year. That would be within the rights of the teacher, with school closures and the Minister having said that teachers should not be overassessing because exams would be going ahead. A GCSE student studying 10 subjects could, theoretically, in the four-week period between Easter and the end of May, do 40 different tests: 10 subjects, four assessments per subject needed for the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA).

The guidance on this is really worrying, because that will severely damage the mental health of pupils. In our mental health survey, 84% told us that exam uncertainty had had a negative impact on their mental health. I can only imagine what that number would be now, as students are faced with the prospect of doing something that many are describing as actually being worse than having to do exams this year, even after prolonged school closures. I would really like to bring to the attention of members today how children and young people have been almost blindsided by this announcement by CCEA on Friday. Our teachers are struggling to explain the announcement to us — struggling to break it to us, because it is a difficult piece of news to break. There are a lot of issues with that that I hope that we can get through in members' questions.

Aside from that, I want to focus on the great work that SSUNI has been doing across Northern Ireland. The mental health report is part of that. Morgan, our mental health officer, to whom I will pass over in a minute, was the mastermind behind that, along with our working group.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Thanks, Cormac. Morgan, you might need to unmute your mic.

Mr Morgan Shuttleworth (Secondary Students' Union for Northern Ireland): Sorry about that. Thank you for having us, Chair. I can only reiterate what Cormac stated. The mental health situation in Northern Ireland was already shocking by comparison with that of our counterparts in the UK and the Republic of Ireland, and the statistics have just gone through the roof. We do not even know how bad it has been during the pandemic because of the lack of research and reports around mental health in the past year. That is why this survey and our report are so important to help students in need through the pandemic and with their mental health challenges in general.

The survey was open for two weeks. In that time, we got over 2,100 students to anonymously respond to it. Some 1,000 of those responses came within 24 hours. Some of the survey findings include: 65% of students said that their change in workload had altered their quality of learning; 71% said that self-isolating had made their mental health suffer; and, of students rating their counselling services on a scale of 1 to 10, 173 students rated their school's counselling service at 1, while only 33 students rated it at 10. That speaks for itself about the need for progress on counselling.

At the end of the report, we made the policy recommendations that we are here to present. These include more communication and more involvement of the Executive and the Education Department with young people on the issues that are facing us — that is, exams and mental health. Another recommendation was for Education Authority (EA) guidance on how counselling services should be provided in schools. At the minute, there is no guidance or infrastructure on how to run counselling services in schools, so it is left up to each school. This impacts on every student, as some schools may have different budgets for and ideas surrounding counselling. The last recommendation that I would like to state here is that counselling provision funded by EA should be increased from half a day a week to one day a week. People have contacted us through the students' union and our email and social media to make us aware that their schools are themselves paying for extra counsellors, because half a day is just not enough to facilitate the huge waiting list of students who need that help that they are not getting.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Thanks, Morgan. Cormac, have you anyone else to bring in?

Mr Savage: Yes. This all sounds very "doom and gloom", but a lot of the work that we have been doing, outside of the goings-on for young people in the pandemic, has been very positive. We have been running great projects. Our education officer, James Kane, could not be here today but, along with a student council working group of around 25 young people, James is in the process of designing a framework model student council for schools, which will try to revolutionise the way that we look at that student voice within the context of an individual school.

On top of that, Sophia Armstrong, our community relations officer, has brought in a fantastic project called Student-centred Shared Ed, which she will tell you more about now. That is our next working group, and we will hopefully be able to send a copy of its findings to the Committee eventually.

Ms Sophia Armstrong (Secondary Students' Union for Northern Ireland): I said to Cormac about setting up a working group around shared education, about how it has largely been set aside this year because of the pandemic, and about how a lot of young people have missed out on the opportunity to experience what it is like to meet people from other communities that they would not meet in school.

We can only learn about World War I and World War II once or twice. Every time that we go to shared education projects, we learn about the same stuff in the same sort of environment talking about the same issues. It gets very boring after a certain amount of time. I think that it is really worthwhile having young people


education projects and seeing how they actually work from a young person's perspective. I grew up in an integrated school that was involved in shared education, and I am very passionate about that. I have missed out on that opportunity during lockdown. I miss the relationships that I was building, and I can only echo what other students are feeling. This working group is about designing shared education that is designed by young people for young people.

Mr Savage: That is a flavour of some of what we have been doing this year as an organisation, as well as just generally being there for students so that they can reach out to us and campaigning on issues such as the exam issue that I have raised with you today, which is a massive issue and one that I hope that we can talk more about later during questions.

Chair, thank you very much for the opportunity to be here today.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Thank you, Cormac, Morgan and Sophia. You are doing incredible work. It is extremely positive work, and we look forward to engaging with you today.

I will bring in our Crisis Cafe representatives.

Ms Inez Murray (Crisis Cafe): Good morning. My name is Inez Murray, and today I will represent the Crisis Cafe. I thank Robbie Butler for inviting us and the Education Committee for giving us the chance to give this oral briefing on the school restart and the impact of COVID-19 on young people.

Crisis Cafe is a mental health organisation that provides clinical help in a non-clinical setting. It aims to break the stigma around mental health and lead the conversation about mental health and well-being in young people. For years now, we have known that mental illness and poor mental health are an epidemic in Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland, 12·6% of children and young people experience common mood disorders such as anxiety and depression; that is 25% higher than the rest of the UK and has only gotten worse with the COVID-19 pandemic.

In our recent survey, we asked young people: "Do you feel that your mental well-being has suffered as a result of online learning?" To that, 85·3% of young people said yes. That is a very shocking number, is it not? However, it is not just a number. Every single one of those respondents is a young person with their whole life ahead of them, and they are struggling. Every single one of them has a family, friends and people who care about them. Every single one has hopes, dreams and ambitions of a better future, but it is hard to see that past the glare of a screen and the haze of uncertainty surrounding their exams.

To you, 85·3% might be a shocking number, but, unfortunately, it is not shocking to mental health organisations such as Crisis Cafe, who see it every day in their work, or to young people like me, Odhran — who is also here representing us today — or our friends. It is not shocking, because it is our reality, our life and our struggle. As I mentioned, every single young person in our survey, and across Northern Ireland, who has struggled and is struggling with mental health as a result of the pandemic and online learning is a unique and complex individual. As a result of that, we cannot represent exactly every single view today, but I will tell you one story: the one that I know the best, and that is my own.

My name is Inez Murray. I am 18 years old, and I am studying A levels at Sacred Heart Grammar School in Newry. I will start in August, when we returned. I was so excited to go back to school. I was going into my final year at school, and I could not wait to see my friends in this last year before we went our separate ways. I was excited to sit in classrooms again, to talk to teachers and to queue in the canteen, and about whispering underneath your breath in the study hall so that the librarian did not catch you catching up with your friends. I was intrigued by the new content. I remember flicking through the specifications. I was just so excited to learn it all, from the medulla to microeconomics. I could not wait. That is how you are supposed to feel about going back to school; you are supposed to feel excited. I was, but I was also terrified.

My 89-year-old grandmother lives beside us and is in our support bubble. She eats her meals with us, and I see her every day. My worry about going into school was not necessarily about me getting coronavirus. I was worried that I would bring it home to her. I was not just worried; I was terrified. How could I live with myself, knowing that I had brought a deadly virus into our home? I do not know. The mental burden of that is immense, and it is not just on me. Thousands of other young people across Northern Ireland are worried about the health of their families and their own health. Despite this, as a young person in school at the time, I was just expected to continue as normal. We all were. I appreciate that sometimes adults believe that normalising the pandemic will make us feel better, but it is not normal. This is not how it is supposed to be.

You know what it is supposed to be like as teenagers. It is supposed to be the best year of your life. This year was supposed to be formals, eighteenth birthdays and the cliques in your year group dissolving into a melting pot of friendships new and old. Needless to say, this has not happened. In fact, it has been the opposite. We use terms such as "isolation" and "social distance" to describe the physical acts that prevent the spread of COVID-19. They also describe how it feels to be a young person in this pandemic: isolated and with a social distance between you and your friends. You cannot talk to new people. You cannot reach out to old friends and you cannot try to make new ones. You have to pick a few close friends and keep to yourself. You become insular and withdrawn. I find it hard to describe how detrimental that can be to a young person's mental health: to become insular at a time when you most need new friends and a laugh. To see it happen to all your friends too is just heartbreaking.

When there is absolutely no social life, young people find it hard to keep themselves sane. They will obsess over their diet and exercise — I have seen far too many people fall into that regime over the past few months — or they will pour themselves into schoolwork. Now that it is online learning, young people will stare at screens for hours on end just to catch up. Sitting here today, I know that I am behind. I know that after this call, I will have to do a few more hours' work, just staring at a screen. We are studying so hard, and it never ends. We do not know what we are working for. It is not healthy.

The academic pressure pot that this pandemic has created, combined with the months of uncertainty from the Department of Education, has been so toxic for our mental health. Odhran will discuss this more. Young people feel let down about exams. The Department of Education has had months and months to give clarity, and yet we are still in the dark. Young people already struggling with their mental health feel left behind by politicians. In our survey, 96·6% of young people said that they would like more certainty on grading arrangements and exams. Only a measly 11·3% had faith in politicians to bring about these changes.

We asked our respondents — the young people we work with — what they would say, if they could say anything, to the politicians here today. There were many responses, but two words popped up over and over again. Two little words: do better. We are here today at Stormont because you politicians and your predecessors agreed to put your differences aside so that the next generation of young people in Northern Ireland could have a chance of a brighter future. COVID-19 has taken a lot away from young people, but, if we are given certainty and support from politicians like you, we can still have a chance of that brighter future. Please give us that chance. Thank you very much. I will now pass to Odhran.

Mr Odhran McAllister (Crisis Cafe): Hello, everyone. I am delighted to speak today on behalf of the Crisis Cafe. My name is Odhran and I am the chairperson of the youth advisory board of the Crisis Cafe. I am 17 and from Newry. I am a year 14 student, studying for A levels at St Paul's High School in Bessbrook.

After reflection, we must learn from the past and pave the way forward. We need solutions, but, most importantly, we need stability. Having endured the pandemic and the educational hardships that come with it, we must now act to ensure that young people never face these hardships again. First, on the topic of mental health services and access to services in schools, access to mental health services in the majority of schools at the moment simply does not cut it. Having a mental health service in schools two or three days a week is not good enough. Too often, young people are told: the good news is that you have an appointment; the bad new is that the counsellor is not in today and you will have to wait until Thursday or Friday. Young people need an easily accessible mental health service to be in schools not two or three days a week but five days a week. In a survey conducted by the Crisis Cafe, we asked young people whether they believe that mental health services in schools are accessible enough. The majority — 47% of our young people — indicated that mental health services in schools are not accessible enough, with 91% of respondents stating that there is a need for an accessible mental health service five days a week.

With an already-existing mental health epidemic among young people that has been accelerated by the pandemic, young people are at breaking point. We need a total reassessment of mental health support in schools. We need an identified member of staff whose primary full-time focus is the mental well-being of young people in schools. We need a mental health service that is easily accessible at the point of request. We desperately need solutions.

That brings me on to my second issue: exams and grading. At the moment, schools, young people and teachers have been left in limbo. We have been given very vague and unclear guidance from the Department of Education on how we will be graded this year. What we got from the Education Minister was an announcement of the cancellation of summer exams. At the time, that came as a relief to many students, but it is now clear that that will not be the case. The guidance from the Education Minister is too loose and allows schools to grade students any way they wish. This will lead to mass inequality when it comes to grading this summer, with some schools opting to simply give their teachers' judgement and others carrying on business as usual by setting exams anyway as a form of tracking, battling to make their grades more legitimate.

In our survey, 96% of young people stated the need for more clarity on the grading situation. That is exactly what we, the students, need: clarity. We need one solution that is a level playing field for all students in all schools and, most importantly, that values the mental well-being of students. Students have been learning from home since the Christmas break, which has brought increased stress and anxiety to the majority of young people. That is evident from the large number of young people reaching out to the Crisis Cafe in distress because they are struggling with home learning and becoming increasingly worried about the grading situation.

In our survey, we asked young people how they feel about the issue of results this August, and a majority of 61% indicated that they feel anxious. As an A-level student hoping to go to university in September, I share the struggles and stress of online learning, as well as the immense worry about the ways in which grading will be conducted this summer. Our career ambitions, our prospects and our future are on the line.

To summarise, we need increased mental health support in schools that is fully accessible and available every school day. This support should have a direct link with mental health resources in the community. We need clarity on the exams and grading situation. We need assurances that, when it comes to grading this summer, there will be a level playing field for each school and each student, and that grading will be conducted in a way that takes into account the difficult circumstances that students faced throughout this academic year. We need a system that puts the mental health and well-being of students first.

Students in Northern Ireland are set to return this month, on 22 March, and, upon their return, things need to change. Since the Christmas break, young people have been reporting to the Crisis Cafe about increased stress and anxiety, increased isolation and loneliness, increased worry in relation to reintegration, the impact of online learning, feeling unmotivated, an increase in the feeling of hopelessness and an increase in young people being prescribed medication. To support young people presenting those concerns, and to support them with their return to school, we need a reassessment of mental health support in schools, and we need assurances that there will be no more school closures and no return to online learning.

Thank you very much.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Thank you so much for your contributions today, folks, and thank you for the work that you are doing. This is hard but important listening for us today, and we really value your testimonies.

Can I please bring in our Children's Commissioner's Youth Panel representatives? Hi, Bronagh.

Ms Bronagh Close (Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People Youth Panel): I just really want to thank the Committee for allowing me and Taisie to be involved in such a wonderful opportunity. I have been involved with NICCY for the past two years. During that time, I have focused on and prioritised getting involved in different subgroups that revolve around mental health.

Education and services such as child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) have had a big effect on young people's mental health during the pandemic. Children have a right to education and a right to health, including mental health. They are not receiving that fully. Education and online school during the pandemic have affected a lot of people's mental health due to the immense pressure that we have been put under to complete assessments and learn all our work online in order to receive our predicted grades.

I know that a lot of people feel anxiety about going back to school. I think that more support should have been given to us to work around this. A lot of people have been set too much work by their school, and they are feeling stressed. They feel like they cannot complete it all, but they are worried that, if they do not complete it on time, that will affect their grade. Schools should provide more support to young people, especially those who suffer from mental health problems and who are particularly vulnerable during this pandemic. Places like the Education Authority's Youth Service are obligated more than any other organisation to provide support for young people, yet only a small amount of this is provided.

I know that some youth workers have been providing online support systems for more targeted in-real-life small groups of young people. This should be provided for every school in Northern Ireland. There will be people in every school who have suffered from mental health problems, especially given that there is an increased risk of suicide during the pandemic. It has been incredibly difficult to receive services like CAMHS over the past year of the pandemic. On average, it takes 16 weeks for a young person in Northern Ireland to even be considered eligible for a service like CAMHS. Even that does not guarantee an appointment for another few weeks. It is really difficult only being able to access services like CAMHS over the phone, especially since most young people will have to take the call during normal school hours, so it may affect their online learning. They may not feel like they are being provided with the correct privacy and confidentiality, as they have to do it in their house, where other members of their family can hear. It is also extremely emotionally draining to have to do it over the phone. You feel like you cannot be as honest as you would be in real life. Education and services like CAMHS should be prioritised as we come out of lockdown, to make sure that children and young people receive these services in the way that is their right. I will pass to Taisie now.

Ms Taisie Court (Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People Youth Panel): Hi. I am Taisie. I am part of the NICCY Youth Panel. We protect the rights of children and young people in Northern Ireland. We make sure that they get their voices heard and that their rights are seen to

We have a "right 12", which means that we have the right to give our opinions about things that affect us. Over the course of the pandemic, we have seen that children are not always involved in the key decisions about exams and how school will work, and we are always left behind. The Education Committee has taken, time and time again —. There have been long, extended periods of time when we have not known what is happening. We are left thinking that every test we do will be used for our end grade. There is no room for improvement or seeing where you have gone wrong. A large part of testing in schools normally is that you do your test and you realise what you need to do, and you have that period of time when you can work on it and not feel stressed, because it is just a test. Now every test is an exam, and we do not have the freedom to develop as we did. Every time that we hand in a piece of work or submit a piece of work remotely, we have that fear that it will be used for our grade. That is a really big stress for most children.

In 2018, NICCY launched the Still Waiting campaign, listing eight topics that the Government should do better on. We are still waiting for these changes, such as CAMHS services being universal and easier to obtain, which, again, is a right. Our rights to education and play have been affected by the pandemic, as we are isolated from peers. When we are with peers, we are seen as teenagers who are being dangerous or putting society at risk.

Although we are sticking to two-metre social distancing, we are still seen as a threat. Children and young people in Northern Ireland have faced so much isolation during this period. These are vital years for socialising and are the years when we discover how to make social skills, how to reach out and how to test ourselves and see where we can go. That has been a large disadvantage this year, as we do not have the same services or the same opportunities as we once did, and not enough has been done to ensure that kids are still having extracurricular activity or time after school to socialise with their peers. You are in your class and then you are out. There is no break time or lunchtime, and there is no time during class to talk. I feel like that has had a really big effect on the mental health of young people.

Reaching out to one another through social media is a lot harder, and we are not given enough credit for what we do. Reaching out online has been really difficult. You finish your work and you do not want to look at a screen again. You have already spent six hours looking at a screen, and the only way that we can communicate with our peers and with our friends and family is through a screen. More needs to be done to ensure that, when we go back to school, we have the opportunity to attend extracurricular clubs, as long as they are socially-distanced. We have a right to play and a right to talk to our peers, and we have a right to be kids again. A lot of people have had to grow up really fast during the pandemic, and we have not had enough time to let loose or relax during school time because we are always working for a grade. It is not like the end of the year when you are constantly doing a little bit of work at a time. To get your final grade, everything that we do now is judged. There is no room for error, or at least that is how the teachers make us feel. It has been really difficult, and a lot of my friends and I have found every piece of work a lot more stressful. I read over every essay that I do 100 times before I submit it, and, even when I do submit it, I fear that it will not be good enough. That will go towards my grade.

We recently got confirmation from the Education Authority that we will be doing centre-assessed grades through mini exams. They are still exams and still involve the same pressure, but we have more exams. Instead of doing one big exam, we have to be fearful of every single little exam that we do. It is a lot more pressure and a lot more self-inflicted pressure; we want to do the best because this is our future. However, we cannot do that because we do not have the right teaching. As part of NICCY, we have discussed the fact that we know that our teachers are struggling, but we need more support and more one-on-one time with our teachers. You cannot stay back after class and discuss something that you are worried about with your teacher. You cannot have the same interactions and the same class questions and discussions, and it has taken a lot out of our education at a time when we should be learning how to speak up for ourselves and sharing our opinions and views.

Thank you for inviting us, Mr Chair.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Thank you, Bronagh and Taisie. You are giving children and young people a big voice today. We are really grateful for it. Thank you. I will keep us moving and invite our Northern Ireland Youth Forum representatives to come in.

Ms Lauren McAreavey (Northern Ireland Youth Forum): Good morning, Chair.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Good morning, Lauren.

Ms McAreavey: Hello, Committee, and thank you for the invite. It is totally inspiring to be here this morning. I am lucky enough to still be considered a young person at 23, but I am here to present on behalf of the Our Voices steering group. As Bronagh mentioned, some of these events are not great timing for young people, so Jack and I are here on behalf of the group.

Our Voices was created to meet the needs arising for our young people from the COVID-19 pandemic. As the other presenters said, it is important for us to engage directly with young people and hear from them about their key issues during the pandemic. To date, we have conducted three pieces of youth-led regional research, with nearly 4,000 individual responses collected. For us, it was about identifying the top issues for young people, capturing their views, opinions and thoughts, and creating platforms for young people to have a voice with decision makers and adults in power so that they can engage with them and hold them to account.

We found out what the top five issues are for young people. At the top, there are two joint issues: mental health and well-being; and education, learning at home and exams. Sixty-seven per cent of our survey respondents highlighted those as key issues for them at the time of surveying, which was November 2020. Of course, this is slightly dated, but it is still relevant today. The third issue was isolation and loneliness, which was identified by 61% of respondents. The fourth issue was boredom, which was identified by 56% of respondents, and the fifth issue, which was identified by 30% of respondents, was physical health.

Seventy-four per cent of respondents highlighted the fact that their mental health and isolation had got worse or much worse during the pandemic. Only 29% felt hopeful about their future. Fifty-two per cent of our survey respondents also felt that they were not coping well with not seeing family and friends and the impact that that has had on feelings of isolation and their mental health. Young people were asked to describe in one word how they felt at the time of surveying. The top three most common responses were "anxious", "annoyed" and "frustrated". It is safe to say that a lot of people in society share those feelings.

The key issues on that topic are underfunding and access to vital services. The CAMHS waiting lists are extensive, and the impact of COVID has made a dire situation even worse. There needs to be more recognition that loneliness and isolation are also experienced by young people and not, stereotypically, just by adults and older generations. We also believe that greater moves are needed towards challenging the stigma around mental health and embracing a mental health curriculum in formal and informal educational settings, as was suggested by the Elephant in the Room campaign.

Thirty per cent of respondents said that physical health was a key issue for them. Sixty-three per cent of respondents suggested that sports should not be stopped during a lockdown. Twelve per cent of respondents had questions about health, including the vaccine, and 10% of young people who completed our survey reported that their key issues included food, feeling unsafe in their homes, housing rights and homelessness. Ten per cent seems minimal, but, when you think of that in the bigger picture, it represents over 270 young people who consider those as key issues. We feel that it is of extra significance that young people are identifying those concerns. Young people also identified concerns about the health of those around them and their role in ensuring that those people are kept safe and well at this time. Young people have the added pressure of making sure that the people around them are safe and well.

We have already mentioned that one of the key issues around physical health is the impact of article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) — the right to play — because of the restrictions that have been in place. The lack of green spaces and access to them is a factor, particularly for those who live in high-rise flats and crowded urban areas. There is also an impact on mental well-being when there are restrictions on physical activity and the ability to engage with others. The link between physical and mental health in relation to body image and confidence has also been spoken about in the survey.

Screen fatigue and the overrun of life online are also an issue of concern. It is hard to find the time to take a break because life has altered on to an online platform. I will pass over to Jack to finish our presentation.

Mr Jack Dalzell (Northern Ireland Youth Forum): Hi, I am Jack. I am 14 and have been with NIYF for two years. I will start off on the topic of education. Some of the key statistics relating to education from our survey show that 45% of respondents said that they felt unsafe in their work space or educational environment. Thirty-five per cent of the questions that were asked by respondents were on the topic of education, and 47% of respondents felt that universities and colleges should be teaching more online. It is important to note that the definition of young people in Northern Ireland is those who are under 25, so our survey statistics encompass people who are in universities and colleges. Fifty-one per cent of respondents suggested that schools should be closed for longer. However, the survey was completed in November, so that last statistic may not show how young people are feeling now.

Some of the key issues for young people who are in education include widening inequalities, including access to resources and support. The digital divide means that some people may not have access to the internet or they may live in a crowded home with low internet access. The pressures of homeschooling are felt by people who are having to teach themselves because their parents have to work but also by some young people who may have to homeschool their own children, which may increase pressure on them. There is also the confusion around exams and the inconsistencies of the grading system.

I will now move on to youth voice and participation. Some of the main statistics on the topic showed that 89% of respondents felt that the voice of young people had not been heard throughout COVID-19. Seventy-four per cent told us that they did not have faith or confidence in leadership from government. In that question, we did not specify whether it was the Northern Irish Government or the British Government, so we are taking this as a collective for both. Also, 58% said that they did not fully understand the messages coming from people in power, and 55% said that they did not fully understand the restrictions, rules and regulations.

One of the key issues for young people was the youth press conference. NIYF had a press conference scheduled in July last year, but it was cancelled at the last minute. We were told that it would be rescheduled, but that has yet to happen. We acknowledge the Cool FM youth press conference, but we felt that it was directed at primary-school-age children and did not fully answer questions or help with the concerns of young people. We also believe that a youth press conference cannot be a one-off; there needs to be a long-term mechanism for young people to be heard and consulted. We also highlight article 12 of the UNCRC, which states:

"the child shall in particular be provided the opportunity to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings affecting the child".

Thank you for inviting us here today. It is great to get our message across.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Thanks so much, Lauren and Jack. That was a really important contribution. Jack, you are brave for keeping that Liverpool flag on your wall in the current circumstances. Well done. I am not a Liverpool fan, but I respect the loyalty.

We now bring in the representatives from Pure Mental.

Mr Jay Buntin (Pure Mental): Good morning, everybody. I am Jay; I am one of the co-founders and directors of Pure Mental. Thank you for inviting us to speak. We look forward to talking to you about school restart, COVID generally and the impact that they have had on young people's mental health, and also to taking your questions.

I will give you a bit of background on Pure Mental. Matthew, who will speak in a moment, and I set up Pure Mental in the summer of 2019, which was in-between our lower and upper sixth years of school. Throughout the 13 years of education that we had had before that, the issue of mental health did not really come up in school. There was little awareness of or education about it. On top of that, there was a growing stigma. There were increasing rates of poor mental health and suicide among young people, particularly in the Lisburn area, where we went to school. We thought, "It looks like few others are doing anything about this, so let's do something ourselves". Throughout all our projects, whether that be physical resources for schools, pupil-led committees or the newly launched young people's well-being council, policy and research have been constant priorities for us. Through that policy and research work, we have been able to consult teachers and school leaders and gather the voices of young people on a huge range of key issues. As we have gathered that information and evaluated decisions by the Executive, we have been able to create our own informed and substantiated conclusions, which we will be pleased to share with you this morning.

Mr Matthew Taylor (Pure Mental): When it comes to school restart, young people are on what you might call a seesaw of emotions, with a real contrast between fear and excitement being a very common theme in our consultation. Young people are one of the groups in our society who have sacrificed a lot during the COVID crisis. I think that all members here today will acknowledge that education is power, and, when called upon, young people sacrificed their friendships, relationships and education and stayed at home, often to protect their loved ones. Young people have paid a huge price for the disruption to their education this year. That must be acknowledged by the Committee.

Through detailed and lengthy consultation with staff and principals at primary and secondary level, along with the views of young people themselves, it is clear that school restart is sparking valid and genuine concerns surrounding examinations, COVID transmission and issues of motivation and concentration that have been triggered by the return to face-to-face teaching, which was highlighted by people who have spoken previously today. It is also important to highlight the problems surrounding the social aspect of school. Many young people, including me, have been cut off from everyone but those living in their immediate household since Christmas. Pupils are telling us that they may now be too accustomed to online learning and feel extremely anxious about being thrown back into noisy classrooms with 30 students at a time and that they may struggle to manage social overstimulation by being reunited with their friends and the increasing pressure of delivering essay after essay. There is a clearly defined fear of the unknown among young people and a very worrying, almost universal, admission of social concern surrounding friendships. It is for that reason that we choose to echo the words of the mental health champion, who insisted that education must be placed on the back burner in favour of re-establishing friendships and social support structures, which are so important to our young people. In our view, mental health has never been the highest priority for this Department, and, if it does not make it a priority now, the ramifications among young people could be insurmountable. There are children who enrolled in P1 as primary-school pupils last year who have never met another child of their age. The key building blocks of friendships, emotional regulation, language and empathy have been disrupted, and there are real concerns among the primary-school principals with whom we have communicated that, unless there is proper planning, the effects may be irreversible.

I will now hand over to Theo to talk a bit about the physical impact on students on the return of face-to-face teaching.

Mr Theo Burton (Pure Mental): Thanks, Matthew. These fears and anxieties are only added to with the threat to physical health. Small schools in particular really struggle to follow the Department of Education's guidance on social distancing. Corridor distancing, mask wearing, staying two metres apart and rigorous cleaning are hard to enforce in small schools, particularly when they have limited funds. For some pupils, going back to school now simply is not an option, particularly for pupils who care for vulnerable relatives or who themselves are shielding. Pupils have been forced to stay at home for months, having been told that meeting their friends puts lives in danger, yet now they are being told by Peter Weir and Robin Swann that being in a small classroom with 30 of their peers is totally fine. Maybe that does not endanger the physical health of pupils that much, but what about their teachers or their vulnerable family members? Is it really fair to put that burden of risk on young people who fear bringing home or passing on this deadly virus? That is the fear with which young people and children are engaging. It is the negative side of things from the pandemic and for school teaching.

However, as we said, there is also a real, incredible excitement about the return. Routine and being with friends are the two things that are most mentioned by pupils. They want those to come together and to combat a turbulent and unpredictable year and bring them a sense of normality as they had in past years. The fact that they are looking forward to seeing their friends again is what we have heard over and over again from young people when we spoke to them about the issue. Young people need a social life again, whether that be in school or around friends. For young people with troubled home backgrounds, who perhaps do not have a lot of stability in the home, school is a really key part of their mental health support structure. I will pass you over to Jay now.

Mr Buntin: Thank you. A routine has been absent from the lives of nearly everybody in the past 12 months:

"I need a routine to stay motivated and focused."

Those are the words of a special educational needs (SEN) pupil, who says that they lack motivation, organisation and enthusiasm for their schoolwork without a routine. It is key for them. Generally, there is an excitement and a hope that a routine will bring back some normality and consistency. It may seem strange, perhaps, but young people miss schooldays. Most feel lost without them. Given the transfer process, online learning, exam uncertainty, separation from friends and the constant worry about the virus, COVID has had a huge impact on young people's mental health, particularly as schools reopen. Those issues are so important for young people, and all pupils, from P1 to year 14, have been seriously impacted. We will happily take questions on those issues in a few minutes.

We wish to touch on the fact that, throughout the pandemic, the Department of Education has failed to safeguard viable or realistic planning for very predictable solutions until the last second, with plans often being scrapped and frantically replaced as a result, whether it is the exam situation, of which, I am sure, we are all aware, or the recent reports of the squeeze on secondary school places. Despite those numbers being available for nearly 11 years whereby you can track pupils in year groups, the Department still does not have an answer to this question at this time. We hope that, as schools restart, the Department has a plan. However, recent communication with the Department of Education — I acknowledge the Chair's contribution here — regarding elements of the newly announced mental health framework shows that that serves as a glorified wish list rather than an actual plan for services. It almost entirely lacks detail. We beg to differ there. To highlight our frustration on behalf of those whom we are representing today, last Thursday, primary-school principals received a 40-page document on school restart, and that gives principals just one working day to read, analyse and communicate this plan with parents and staff. We believe that that is unacceptable. As schools return, as we said, catch-up must be priority number two, education must be placed on the back burner and well-being must be priority number one. Thank you very much. We will happily take any questions.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Thank you so much to everyone who has presented today. I am not remotely surprised that some of the testimony given today has been inspirational and challenging in equal measure. Some of the testimony makes hard and challenging listening. A word cloud of today's contributions would include uncertainty, anxiety, distress, inequality, digital divide, sacrifice, disruption, isolation, shielding, mental health, child and adolescent mental health services, exams by the back door, failed planning and, perhaps, most challenging, the failure to include you in decisions that affect you. We need to use today as a platform and launch pad to make major improvements to that process.

I also heard inspirational advocacy such as the right to education, the right to play, the right to health, the right to have a voice, the right to inclusion in decisions affecting you, communication, regular youth press conferences, access to green space, safety, funding and excitement. We need to be advocates on your behalf to make sure that that is the story that you experience in the months ahead. The Committee has called on the Education Minister and the Executive to put in place a children and young people's recovery plan that focuses on educational, emotional, social and physical support coming out of the pandemic. We will do all that we can to support you. We are so grateful for your engagement with our Committee today.

I am delighted to bring in Committee members at this point to engage with you and ask questions. I will start with the Deputy Chairperson, Pat Sheehan MLA.

Mr Sheehan: I thank all the panellists for their inspiring presentations this morning. Many common themes were raised across all the presentations. In the presentations from Inez and Theo, I was struck by the fact that young people are afraid to go back to school in case they bring a deadly virus home to a vulnerable member of their family. That is an unacceptable burden to place on the shoulders of any young person.

One of you mentioned some of the things that the mental health champion has been saying. She gave evidence to the Committee some weeks ago and agreed with my assessment that there is a tsunami of mental health and well-being issues coming at us. As most of you said, there is a need to prioritise well-being above education and learning for the time being. I am concerned that the Department may place an over-reliance on the new mental health and well-being framework, which was mostly designed pre COVID and does not take account of the pandemic. I believe that a coherent, integrated and cross-departmental strategy should be developed across Health, Education and Communities. The community and voluntary sector and sporting organisations should also be involved to create a specific response to the tsunami of mental health and well-being issues that are coming. Do the panellists agree that we need a COVID-specific response to those issues?

Mr Shuttleworth: In a meeting with Pure Mental and Siobhán O'Neill only last Friday, we were talking about that and how counselling should be digitised through the use of Zoom and the like. Hundreds if not thousands of people have had to stop their CAMHS treatments because they did not want to do it over the phone or via Zoom, my brother included. It is unacceptable that they should be stopping treatment just because they are refusing to do it over the phone, even though it is extremely ineffective. The Crisis Cafe, I am sure, is in a better position to speak about this. It has been doing an amazing job with weekly group sessions on Zoom and Zoom crisis counselling throughout the pandemic.

Ms Murray: Thank you for raising that issue. As I said, we work directly with young people and try to see what is going on. We have seen that COVID has changed the way we look at mental health. In fact, it has increased mental health problems in young people. We do not have the exact statistics, but our calls and consultations have more than doubled during the pandemic.

We need a different framework. We need an emergency COVID mental health framework that addresses the problems that the pandemic has brought up and addresses the increase in demand for mental health services. We need it now, because it is affecting people as we speak. We get calls every day throughout the pandemic. People just feel disempowered and not listened to, so that is a [Inaudible.]

Ms McAreavey: Life has never been like this, so bringing in a policy or framework to implement when this has not been considered is, frankly, ridiculous. A cross-departmental approach in response to this is vital. I spoke before about food poverty and the digital divide. This issue goes across every Department in terms of young people's rights, so it needs to be key in moving forward.

Ms Close: The pandemic has affected everyone, so people who had mental health issues beforehand have maybe become worse because of the pandemic, or people who never experienced mental health issues now suddenly have anxieties about seeing people or feel depressed because they are so isolated. We absolutely need to prioritise young people's mental health by seeing how the pandemic has affected them specifically.

Mr Sheehan: I probably should have said at the outset that I am a father of two primary-school children, one in P1, who went back just this week, and the other, who is in P5, will be nine in a couple of weeks' time. I can definitely see the impact that the pandemic and lockdown has had on them.

The younger child, who has just gone back, is really shy and needs help in social development, whereas the older one is much more outgoing and is depressed that she cannot see her friends and mingle in school. She loves school. Do not think that, because we are politicians, we are oblivious to the problems that young people face. Many of us are parents and understand the issues.

The paper that the Secondary Students' Union provided to us captured the frustration of young people, particularly with the dithering of the Minister when it came to the exams last year. There are new problems this year. One of the comments made earlier was that it looks as if there are going to be exams by the back door. Could panellists from the union tell us what impact the various delays and indecision by the Minister have had on the young people that you represent?

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Morgan was itching to answer as well, Cormac. Go ahead, and I will get Morgan as well, if I can.

Mr Savage: One of the key findings that our mental health report noted is that poor communication from the Executive, on decisions such as school closures, has negatively impacted upon the mental health of young people. We found that, not only through the survey results, but through our individual focus group sessions.

The uncertainty and delay from the Executive on decision-making, and in particular from the Education Minister, really had an impact. One of the key figures from the survey is that 84% of young people told us that exam uncertainty had negatively impacted on their mental health. That was entirely avoidable. Had our Education Minister acted decisively, along with the Welsh Education Minister, Kirsty Williams, in November, when SSUNI and the Children's Commissioner called on them to cancel exams, we could have avoided the situation that so many of our young people were in until January. In the report, you will see that we outline at what date each region of the UK cancelled exams. As usual, Northern Ireland lagged behind everyone else.

We have devolution for a reason. Why do we not use it to give our young people peace of mind? Your question was what impact that had on young people's mental health, and it has been absolutely gigantic. Every consultation that we do, and nearly all the messages that we put on social media, are young people asking us about mental health and asking, "What are you doing about exams?"

That is why the CCEA announcement, which I have been driving home today, is so worrying. If in November, 84% of students told us that their mental health has been negatively impacted by exams, what will the figure be now that GCSE students might have to do up to 40 exams in the space of four weeks? Some of the guidance in the CCEA announcement is out of touch with schools. It recommends that, among the conditions for assessments being taken, noticeboards in classrooms should be covered. I challenge the Committee to find a teacher in Northern Ireland who, when they run a class test, covers the noticeboards in their classroom with a big sheet of paper. That is a condition that they demand for evidence from teachers. The idea that teachers would provide four assessments for every student under those conditions forces students, upon their return at Easter, into a blitz of assessments.

We are talking about mental health, and that will be dangerous for the mental health of a lot of students. It is very dangerous to send students, who have not had the same quality of learning that they would have had in other years into the most intense stream of exams that they could have got. Even had we been doing exams in May and June, they would not have been under those horrendous conditions.

This guidance needs to be altered immediately to include things like homework essays as part of the suggested evidence. SSUNI has been working hard on this over the past few days. One of the key problems is that students were told by the Education Minister that work completed during the lockdown would contribute to our grades, but, now, under the guidance issued by CCEA as to what makes good evidence, work completed over lockdown is said not to be good evidence.

As mentioned by other people today, students have pored over every essay that they have submitted during lockdown and re-read things five and six times. That is the story across the board. Students have been working harder than ever during the lockdown to try to safeguard their grades. Now, after being told that homework essays would go towards our final grades, CCEA, on a Friday afternoon in March, tell us that they will not. The indecision and the constant back and forth is demoralising for young people and harmful to their mental health. I am sorry that I went over time there, but it is a



The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): I realise how urgent and important those issues are, so I am trying to be as flexible as I can. Given that we have prioritised this session and will take no other evidence today, we should have up to 10 minutes per member for questions. That puts you slightly over time, Pat, but I will let you make a final comment. I think that the issues that you raised will also be raised by other members, so witnesses will get an opportunity to add to them.

Mr Sheehan: Thanks for your indulgence, Chair. Finally, I want to comment on the counselling service being provided in schools. Even before the pandemic, the counselling service was unsatisfactory, and quite a number of you expressed your dissatisfaction with its inadequacy. I will not ask any of you to comment again, because I can gather the thrust of your opinions from what has already been said. It is an issue that needs to be incorporated into an overall, comprehensive strategy to deal with the fallout of the pandemic and the mental health issues that we will face in the time ahead. Thanks again to all of you for your contribution. It has been enlightening.

Mr Newton: Thanks to each of the young people who presented to us. There is a wide range of talent on show. I feel certain that there is bright future ahead for each of them in whatever pathway they decide to follow. I am confident that they will find a positive pathway and have a good future.

I agree with them on many issues, particularly with the secondary-school students when they say, at paragraph 4.1 of their document:

"Coordinating effective government working is required to address the mental health crisis in Northern Ireland".

It is the Committee's view that coordination is critical. In your document, you mention Education and Health. However, we need to go beyond Education and Health. First, we need the Finance Minister to establish a budget for the return to school. That has to come from proposals and leadership from the Education Committee and the Education Minister. However, it needs to be supported and agreed by the Health Minister, and, I would argue, by the Communities Minister.

If we are to see an effective, safe and positive return to school that will address the problems outlined to us this morning, we may even need to consider going beyond the current school year, not for academic subjects but to deal with issues such as health. Perhaps we could use schools as places to meet to coordinate health activities into the summer months. I have no doubt that the mental health issues described by the young people will raise their heads in the weeks and months ahead.

I want to ask a number of questions. I congratulate Pure Mental for establishing a group to address the issues. That is an initiative worthy of comment. Thank you for doing that.

What do the secondary schools' delegates see as the pathway to a return to qualifications? How do you expect those qualifications to be considered by universities in the Republic or GB?

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): If witnesses raise their hand or use the hand-raise facility on StarLeaf, I will do my best to bring them in. Who wants to come in first? Cormac, go ahead.

Mr Savage: I will come in here, and then Morgan will answer the question about using schools as a meeting place over the summer for mental health and well-being. That is something that we have given a lot of thought to.

We have heard a lot about the portability of qualifications since the initial ministerial announcement in October, which did very little for young people. That announcement on the omission of one unit at GCSE was the circumstance under which our survey was carried out. As far as the portability of qualifications goes, universities know teachers well enough to know to trust them. Lacking from this week's announcement is trust in the professional judgement of teachers. I feel that it is Groundhog Day and I am back in August, talking about the need to trust teachers' judgement instead of an algorithm, but, this year, instead of an algorithm, it is an onslaught of assessments. I believe that universities will take into account the grades that teachers give, should teachers give out grades. However, I am not going to say that there should be no evidence attached to those grades. Students have a right to know what their grades are based on, but the system put in now is not the correct one

A better system would be to expand the definition of evidence to include homework essays and classwork. That is something that universities can stand over as qualifications. Teachers can then be allowed to use their discretion and professional judgement to alter the grades that they have given and say, "I know that this student is sitting on a high B this year, based on the evidence that I have, but I know that any other year, without a lockdown, school closures or other circumstances associated with the pandemic, this student would have got an A". Teachers deserve the right to give students an A this year. It goes back to something that the SSUNI has been saying all year: no one complained when the furlough scheme was introduced to give our workers a hand-up through 2020 and 2021, so why do we have such opposition to giving students an educational furlough and giving them a hand-up through 2020 and 2021?

That is the argument that we used in August for the scrapping of the algorithm, and it is what we are using now for the reform of the system that CCEA announced on Friday afternoon. Does that answer your question?

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Yes. Thanks, Cormac. I will keep trying to get other people in as well, but your answers are extremely helpful. I want to make sure that I get others in. I will bring in Bronagh on that.

Ms Close: I am year 13, so I will be going back on 22 March. We need some sort of guarantee that we are not going to be bombarded with assessments on the day that we go back. During the pandemic, when we have had online school, a lot of people have been demotivated and unable to complete all the work. They have had to spend a lot of time on it, but it has been stressful for them and, perhaps, some have not understood what teachers have been teaching them. To go back on 22 March and have all our classes set an assessment, when we have gone weeks without having to do things like that, will be stressful for everyone, especially if the assessments will be used to determine our grade. We will need to have a practice beforehand, and we will need to know when they will be. They cannot just be held on the day that we come back after being months out of school.

Mr Newton: Thank you for the answers. Can I turn to Crisis Cafe? I have to say that I had not heard of you before. Maybe you could explain to me a little bit about the work that you do. I assume that you are not open at the minute.

Ms Murray: Thank you very much, Robin. I completely understand that. The cafe is a physical place. We have only been able to open so far in south Armagh and Newry, and we are looking at other —.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Sorry to cut across you, but can I ask everyone who is not speaking to press mute so that we can hear one another as clearly as possible.

Ms Murray: We have only been able to open in Newry and south Armagh so far, and, as you said, we have had to close due to the pandemic for public health concerns, but, before the pandemic, we held friendship cafes. It was a social space for young people to meet in a safe environment. However, there really is no social life for young people at the minute with the pandemic, and that has had a great impact on their mental health.

As well as that, we did drop-in services on Sundays. It was similar to the friendship cafe, but there were fewer people. People could come and they felt comfortable asking for the one-to-one support that they needed. However, now that we are online, we have had to pivot, as I am sure all the rest of the organisations here have today. We came up with an idea in January to do a self-care calendar. In January, people focus on new year's resolutions and the need to change themselves, but, as young people, we know that we are amazing just the way we are, so we decided that the self-care calendar would have a different theme each week, and it would be daily posts of activities, reflections, quotations to help young people to take care of themselves during lockdown.

As well as that, we do a live on a Friday. That was taken up by our ambassadors and young people whom we represent. Odhran and I, along with the youth advisory board, did the first four weeks, and I spoke on body image. Since then, it has really taken off. Ambassadors have come forward with ideas. Young people are wanting to talk about gender, identity and expression. As well as that, we have talked about isolation, loneliness, anxiety and other topics, such as self-empowerment.

We are still offering Zoom consultations and phone calls if anyone needs them. The need has doubled during the pandemic; people's mental health is really suffering during lockdown. We are also empowering our young people and giving them skills and training. We do boxercise classes on Wednesdays with a local young person who runs her own fitness blog. We also do Zooms and consultations. We have had a dietician, and someone did a talk on sleeping and how to improve your sleeping habits. It has been really beneficial for young people in the area. It has given them a voice, and it has given them an opportunity to learn new skills and meet new people.

We are also doing a friendship cafe. We cannot exactly do it in person, but we are doing it on Zoom. We have mini cafes with our ambassadors, and, as well as that, we have had some social events, such as the first crisis cafe quiz that was hosted about two weeks ago. I hope that answers your question. In short, we are looking forward to doing more things online and on social media until we can get back in person and see all the young people whom we love working with.

Mr Newton: Thank you for that. Let us hope that it is only a short time until we can get back up and return to whatever we are going to call normal in the future. Thank you for the work; it is extremely valuable. Can I ask NICCY to make some comments? You spent a fair bit of time talking about the activities of CAMHS and that it is difficult for young people to deal with CAMHS over the phone. I think that we all accept that. It is difficult in all sorts of fields to deal with issues that we really should be dealing with face to face, but we are having to deal with them over the phone or by the channel that we are using today. If it is not going to be over the phone, how would you see it being addressed? Can you also comment on the effectiveness of online/remote learning?

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Thanks, Robin. I need to make that your final question. Thank you.

Ms Close: I will answer the question about CAMHS. If there was a way, not all CAMHS appointments should be done over the phone. It would work better if there were real-life appointments with CAMHS workers but not as regularly as phone appointments. Maybe you could meet up with your CAMHS worker in real life and see them face to face once a month. Any check-up appointments in-between could continue to be done over the phone.

It is really hard to connect with a CAMHS worker over the phone. You do not see what they look like and cannot build a connection. A lot of people also have trouble speaking over the phone and, if they have some sort of social anxiety, it may make it really difficult for them.

I understand that CAMHS are overwhelmed, as so many young people have had mental health problems during the pandemic, but there should be more communication between CAMHS and other mental health service providers or knowledge about previous medical history. I had a CAMHS appointment and, when they phoned me, I had already sorted out the issue that they phoned about. They had been contacted about it but had not read over the notes. It felt like a pointless phone call, and it was very hard to trust CAMHS after that since they showed no knowledge of my medical history.

I will hand over to Taisie to answer your question about online learning.

Ms Court: Thanks, Bronagh. Remote learning has been amazing in some schools, but other schools are failing. There has been no structure for teachers. They have not been told what they are expected to do, and there is no certain number of calls that must be made each week. It is all teacher-based.

Not having a framework for teaching has been really hard for them and us, and it doubles both our workloads. We have some classes where there is a call every day and others where there is no call until a Friday. You are set work and are not really sure what you are doing or if it is right. It is very hard to find support.

Remote learning at this time has been amazing because, when we cannot go to school, at least there is some connection to our teachers and education. It is not enough. We now appreciate school-based learning more. We need to have times when we can talk to teachers one-on-one or stay back after class if we are a bit confused about a topic. That type of relationship that can be built up with teachers in person allows you to be vulnerable and to challenge yourself more. That has been harder during lockdown. We are given so much work and set assignments that we just work through, and when we are done, we are done. There is no communication if we are struggling with a certain subject, no recapping or making sure that children are OK with what they are learning.

We must try to get through a really long specification that has not been cut down enough. We are still expected to do the same amount of work, even though we have far less class time and experience of topics. We are starting new topics that we are not completely sure about and are still trying to work out how exam boards will mark our work; we are trying to learn specifications and marking schemes as well. We do not have the support that we would have received in class. There is no opportunity for us to speak out or put our hands up. You do not want to interfere with other people's learning, because everybody is having a hard time.

If you have a social anxiety disorder, speaking out has been made almost impossible. If you are in a large class of 30 people on a Zoom call, there is no real chance to put your hand up and say, "Wait. Can you talk about that bit more?" or "Can you rephrase that?" It has been really hard.'

Teachers have done an amazing job, considering the lack of a framework. They have had to figure it out for themselves, and it is an entirely new way of teaching that they were not taught. They have no experience of it and have been thrown in at the deep end.

Mr Newton: Thank you. Are you just looking forward to going back to school, Taisie?

Ms Court: Definitely.

Mr Newton: Thank you very much indeed.

Mr McCrossan: Thank you, Chair, and thank you to every one of the young people here today. It is not easy to come on to such a public forum and speak so honestly and openly, and very articulately about the situation that you have all faced. This year, without a doubt, has been most difficult for young people, more so than anyone else in society. Everything that we know as natural has been taken away and replaced with barriers and reasons not to engage with one another. It goes against everything that we do every day. Young people, in particular, are struggling and have struggled to adapt. There are all sorts of issues. This is not specific to one part of Northern Ireland, one particular household or one particular person. We are all being met with unique circumstances, whether we live in rural communities, cities or so on and so forth, and how far apart we live from friends and family members, in some instances, particularly if you are an only child. Serious issues exist.

Everyone has spoken very clearly and honestly, and I thank you for that. Keep doing that because the power of your voices, as young people, is very important and needs to be heard at the centre. This is a fantastic forum and a good starting point for you to do that. You have done great work to date.

A number of you mentioned exams, and most of you will know that this is a real sore point for me. I have gone to extreme measures to try to hold the Minister and CCEA to account for the mess of the past year. A lot of the stress and anxiety burdened on young people has been caused by a lack of leadership and understanding by CCEA and the Minister, both of whom are out of touch with young people and reality. Unfortunately, as direct and honest as that is, that is what has happened.

Politicians have a choice: we can lead from the front or sit at the back. Throughout the pandemic, too many Ministers sat at the back of the bus when they should have been driving it. That is not acceptable because you, as young people, have suffered as a result of that failed leadership. CCEA, as a self-regulated and out-of-touch organisation, is not learning from its mistakes. It has put immense pressure on you all over the last year, which is unforgivable. We have hauled it over the coals on this and hoped that it would learn lessons. Clearly, from the message sent out on a Friday night recently, it has learnt nothing. I want to put that firmly on the record.

I had a number of question, but Robin and Pat have touched on them. I have a question about counselling services, and I made the point in my opening remarks. Forty-two per cent of students felt comfortable using their school counselling services. That is low, in my opinion, given the complexity of challenges faced by young people today. That has worsened during COVID because there is no access to services, particularly for students who live in rural communities. Why do you think the number of young people who felt comfortable with the services is so low? Is it because young people are finding it more difficult to speak out or that there is not sufficient access to the support services that are so necessary during these times?

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Thanks, Daniel. Will witnesses indicate by a raised hand, on StarLeaf or physically, that they want to speak? We will have Inez from the Crisis Cafe.

Ms Murray: Thank you very much. That is a very reasonable question, and it is something that we found in our work as well. Crisis Cafe offers counselling services, and we are doing it in a clinical way in a non-clinical space. If any charity has to step in, surely that is a sign that it is not working and that we need to change. I have some statistics on this as well. In a survey that we conducted, 47·2% said that schools do not have accessible mental health services, and 35·4% said that it was only sometimes. Respondents also said that 91·8% of young people want mental health services in schools five days a week.

Like Odhran said, you can go to a counsellor and they will say that you have an appointment with them but it will not be that day; it might be next week or in a few weeks. That is just not fair on young people.

We need to see more mental health services in schools. We always needed them but with COVID-19 we have seen an increase in mental health problems and need to address that with a new framework and more mental health services. It is great that charities like the Crisis Cafe are able to reach out to young people, and I say that not as a representative of the Crisis Cafe but as a young person who has been helped through its social interactions and empowering of young people. We need to do more and have more mental health services, because for some young people it is a matter of life and death. Odhran from the Crisis Cafe may want to speak on that as well.

Mr McAllister: I will reiterate some of the points that Inez made about access. The figure for access is already low, and it will be much lower when students return to school on 22 March. Students will go into school and have work thrown at them with no time to consider how they have felt over the lockdown period. They will be going in to start with more work and more thrown at them, which will lead to an increase in stress and anxiety. We need a total reassessment of that; when we return, it cannot be the same as it was.

Ms Close: Having a good counselling service in a school is so important because it is accessible to all the young people in the school. However, I know people from other schools and from my school who went to counselling services that were provided by the school and thought that they did not help at all. They thought that the counsellors were not really listening to them and may not have been properly trained in how to deal with problems.

That is why I mentioned at the beginning how the Education Authority's Youth Service has an obligation to support young people. It should be providing more support in schools, not only to support the young people but to support the teachers who want to help young people through their mental health problems but do not know how to. The Youth Service would be able to help young people develop stronger coping mechanisms and help them to manage their emotions and stress levels in school. They could also provide some sort of training for teachers so that they have more knowledge on young people's mental health.

Ms McAreavey: Providing counselling services in a school environment can be very uncomfortable for a young person. In my secondary school, the counselling services took place in an office to the side of the main reception. That is not a particularly comfortable environment for young people to access that much-needed vital support and can leave them vulnerable. Sometimes, young people leave counselling sessions crying, and it is great that they express emotions in that setting, but it is not totally positive if there is not a good environment in which that can take place.

There is a digital divide and lack of access to resources for young people due to digital poverty. That is something that the Committee has been looking at, but it is important to always reiterate it.

Mr McCrossan: Those are critical points. One of our young people mentioned that some of those who are delivering counselling services are not properly trained. There is absolutely a need for greater training but, equally, there is a need for greater awareness and training of the Department of Education and people who are in senior positions of leadership, including the Minister and those who run the Education Authority. If you look at the inaction and indecision over the past year, they have shown no understanding of the challenges faced by young people and the burden placed on them.

I want to be very clear on this: the mental health crisis is a pandemic that our society is going through that the Government are not doing enough about. That is going to get worse as a consequence of the virus. We are banging at the door; I have seen the impact on people in my community from all walks of life and all age groups and understand completely how young people have been affected. I was the first MLA to have coronavirus. I was at home for over two weeks, and it tests you beyond belief when you are imprisoned in your own home with very little to do and poor connectivity. There are serious issues afoot, and young people have absolutely been impacted.

Chair, I know that I have taken up time, but I have one further question. It is, let me see if I can find it, I jotted it down.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Just while you are looking for that Daniel, Robbie Butler, I will be bringing you in next if you want to get ready.

Mr McCrossan: In enabling children and young people to navigate a safe route to recovery from mental health issues generated by the lockdown, as I have touched on, many have advocated significant participation in activities that bring young people together, including sporting activities. Considering that there is less female participation in sports, is there a better way that we can ensure that the needs of females are targeted better, and, in particular, is there a way that this Committee could assist? This is an important point that needs to be addressed, particularly a few days after International Women's Day.

Just before I let someone in to answer, I want to thank you all for what you are doing. I want you to continue speaking loudly and clearly; be honest, blunt and direct, and make no apology for that to any politician or any person in a position of responsibility who can effect change in your lives. Stand up, speak out and keep doing what you are doing.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Thank you, Daniel. Who would like to come in on that? I will bring someone in otherwise. Go ahead, Taisie. Thank you.

Ms Court: It is important that activities that are not sports are provided, not just for women but for everyone, because not everyone is sporty. Schools make a big effort to try to provide extracurricular activities that often do not apply to everyone. They question why they do not have a response from certain students who are not into sports and are not getting involved. There is not a way for us to be involved that is not sports. Adding an extra emphasis on extracurricular or social clubs where kids can meet up in small or large groups to have a conversation with each other is important. Facilitating that is something that schools need to do more often. For those of us who are not sports people or athletes, it is important that we are given an opportunity to reach out to our peers and to see how they are doing, even if we are struggling. It is a nice way to bring a community together that is not as stressful for some people.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): That is really important, Taisie, thank you.

Mr McCrossan: When I was a student in Liverpool, there were walk-in clinics, particularly through the university. If you needed support, you were able to walk in, get seen, be heard and supported instantly. I have mooted this idea to our Ministers in various questions. Given the situation that we are facing with mental health in our society, generally, particularly among young people, would that be something that you would support? Walk-in services or a clinic where people can go in and instantly get support when they need it, because you cannot book an appointment when your mental health is in such a critical and vulnerable place. It is important that people get that support at the point they need it. Therefore, the only solution is walk-in services.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): OK, it is easier for me to cut you off than them off, Daniel. [Laughter.]

I will bring in Sophia Armstrong and then Lauren McAreavey.

Ms Armstrong: It takes a lot for a young person to come forward and say that they are struggling with their mental health. If they are on the phone to the doctor or counselling service in school, they could then be told, "You will get an appointment in a few weeks’ time." It is one thing to make the appointment, but it is another thing to go to it. Having a young person make the decision in that moment that they are going to go to a walk-in service and be treated there and then is a big thing, but they are more likely to go to it there and then, rather than waiting and being put off for a longer time and to be put on longer waiting lists like that for CAMHS.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Thank you for that, Sophia. I will bring in Lauren followed by Bronagh.

Ms McAreavey: As a youth organisation, young people came to us for support, particularly during the pandemic, but even before that. We are open to supporting young people regardless. We are not trained professionals in that field. A one-stop shop that deals with the issue right then and there, when young people need support, is vital. Hearing from Crisis Cafe shows the support that can be done in person and shown through that.

Looking beyond sport, as a youth work organisation, we use a range of methodologies and make sure that young people are engaged, be that through sport, group work, arts, creativity or whatever it may be, to make sure that young people are engaged. That is important in a youth-led process. Also, just to note, there are great campaigns on female representation in sport.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): I am tempted to ask a question, but I will make a comment instead, given how much we have to get through. We get a sense that the creative ideas that you guys have and the organisations and projects that you have created are not always interacted with by schools. That is not necessarily a criticism of schools. They can, at times, be quite traditional institutions and networks in Northern Ireland. I just wonder whether, given that level of engagement, your ideas and projects, which you come up with yourselves, are being weaved into the extracurricular activity of our schools and colleges, which, at the end of the day, are the places where you will spend most time. I will bring in Bronagh.

Ms Close: Walk-in services are such a great idea, because they could be so beneficial for people who are too afraid to phone up their GP and make an appointment or do not have enough time to wait for a CAMHS referral or are too afraid to open up to their family about their mental health and how they are struggling. They could just go there and get the service on their own, any time that they need it.

I want to touch on what Taisie mentioned earlier about other activities such as exercise. My school has been trying to do a lot on mental health, because it recognises that some young people are struggling. In previous years, it has provided mental health activities for entire year groups, such as an online mindfulness club that ran during online school. A few years ago, it also brought in support dogs so that year groups could spend time with them during their lunch break. Such activities could be really beneficial, because they would not only increase awareness of mental health but provide young people with a service inside school through which they could meet others who may be struggling and help them to work on coping mechanisms.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): That sounds really positive, Bronagh. That is a good example of a creative response from a school. Daniel, do you want to make a very concise closing remark before I move to Robbie?

Mr McCrossan: No, Chair. I am quite happy. I want to thank everybody for their contributions. You can reach out to us, individually or via the Committee, at any time if there are any ideas that you want us to raise at the Assembly. Rest assured that this issue unites us as parties, and we work collectively every day to deal with it.

Mr Butler: Thanks, guys. It is absolutely brilliant to be on with you today. I have known some of you for quite a while. Today, you guys are participants and not recipients, and that is really important. That is where the whole tone needs to change, so I will not speak too much. I will try not to do the MLA things that we normally do. I will try to use my time to see whether we can tease out as much of the good stuff that you guys have already done. I will talk about — it is a bit like a sandwich — a good thing, a bit of a negative thing and then finish on a good thing again, if that is OK.

The good thing is this: we hear a lot of negativity when we speak about mental health. That is quite right, because there are real, serious issues in Northern Ireland. Since I started in 2016 — I know the Chair has been involved with young people's groups — the number-one issue that young people talk about has been mental health. Some of you guys have been involved in this for some time, and some of you have literally been birthed in your organisations through this crisis. Even in the midst of a crisis — I know that the mental health champion has picked up on this — you guys have stepped up to the plate. We hear talk about walk-in counselling and about whether teachers and grown-ups can counsel. What I want to talk about and tease out is this: what does peer support and peer counselling look like? I know that some of you guys are doing that online and that some of you are writing about it. I know of some excellent work. Even in adult mental-health services, peer support is a really good concept. I pitch that one, first of all. [Inaudible.]

What might peer support look like, especially in post-primary education?

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Thanks for that, Robbie. Who wants to come in on that one? Morgan wants to come in, to start with. If anyone else wants to come in on the importance of peer support or what good peer support looks like in your projects, feel free to raise your hand physically or via the StarLeaf facility.

Mr Shuttleworth: Peer support in post-primary schools is starting that conversation when we go back of, "How are you? How have you been? How have you been looking after yourself?". It is that kind of thing. Unfortunately, in a lot of schools, that will be forgotten about due to mocks and exams starting, including for me, the day we go back. There is not time for that conversation, and with teachers as well, to ask your friends how they are. They might have been not ignored but forgotten about during the three or four months that we have been off. It is about starting the conversation, especially in the extracurricular clubs and societies — whether it is sports, music, drama or whatever — that you do with your friends. All of that has been forgotten about due to health concerns. That is understandable, but the more we find a way to engage with other people and the more schools that find a way for students to engage with each other during the pandemic, the more peer support that will come out of that naturally.

Mr Buntin: Through Pure Mental, we have set up committees — they are all pupil-led — in schools across Northern Ireland. They are about getting young people from every year of the school involved and to act, basically, as ambassadors throughout the school for mental health. Those committees organise events and make their own resources, assemblies and presentations. It is about getting the word out, spreading awareness and showing young people that other people care. Those committees have been really welcomed by schools, for the most part; it has been great being able to set them up with the support of schools. They are a key way of having young people supporting other young people. We are really pleased about that. Hopefully, that helps to address some of that peer-to-peer support.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): That sounds excellent, Jay. Anyone else want to come in on that before I bring Robbie back in?

Mr McAllister: Peer support is vital. It is one of the things that we incorporated in to the Crisis Cafe at the very start through our friendship cafe. The friendship cafe draws on people's strengths. It is completely youth-led. It provides a safe and inclusive environment for young people to socialise and talk about the impacts of mental health and their own mental health and well-being. It is something that we have included from the start. It will be vital, especially on school return.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Thanks for that. Anyone else want to come in before I bring Robbie back in? OK.

Mr Butler: I said that I was going to do a bit of a sandwich. I think that the most important topic at the moment — to steal the phrase, it is the elephant in the room, although some of the other guys have spoken about it — about the return to school is the fact that it looks as though exams are a real thing. They can call them assessments or whatever they want, but they take place in a highly controlled environment. Some calculations have been done by the Secondary Students' Union of Northern Ireland; some students have to sit 40 assessments or more. Based on the information that CCEA has produced, some schools put timetables together that look extremely like high-pressure exam timetables. There is quite a bit of written evidence to suggest that, when young people go back to school, space needs to be created to find out where young people are. You guys have had as much learning as you are going to get up to this stage. We cannot have that point where, for four, five or six weeks, we cram all that lost learning into an exam.

You are not recipients today; you are participants. What is the message from each of the representative bodies today to say, "This is what it should look like when we go back to school"? I am firmly of the belief that we need to do almost an individual pupil plan with the teachers and maybe look at what we did last year with the students and treat you exactly the same and not have any divergence — all but the nasty algorithm, which has been demolished. I struggle to see how we can treat you guys differently, and I certainly do not want to put you under any more pressure. You have been disadvantaged further and there has been a harder impact through COVID on this cohort of pupils and students.

Ms Murray: Thank you very much, Robbie. That is very true and, as a student, I know that my friends are saying that they will be cramming for their exams when they go back. Even thinking about that makes you anxious, and it can have an impact on your mental health.

When I was talking to Louise and Grainne, the co-directors of Crisis Cafe, they brought up the fact that we have been through such trauma during the lockdown. Trauma is really what it is — to be locked down in your house, not able to see friends and family. When young people go back into the school routine, that is when they will be able to open up about it, and that is when they will need the mental health support. They do not need the opposite, which is to be told that they need to cram for exams and that these are the grades that they need to get. In some cases, that is what some schools are going to do. I have heard that some schools will be having mocks in the first week back. That gives me butterflies in my tummy, and I am not even doing them.

When we go back, we need to focus on children and young people's mental health because we have been through so much. CCEA and politicians are trying to find an equivalent of the normal exam year for what we can do, but, as I said earlier, we do not need to find an equivalent because it is not a normal year. We need to find something different, which takes into account the impact that there has been on our well-being and our mental health.

Mr Burton: At Pure Mental, we think that the best option and strategy is a staggered approach to returning to school. Pupils have been out of school for quite a long time, and the idea that everything can just go back to normal with exams and assessments will be poor for students' mental health. Schools need to look at reincorporating student mental health before diving into exams and assessments. As we said earlier in the presentation, we think that well-being has to be number one, and education and exams number two.

Online learning needs to continue to be supported. Some SEN students, disabled students and others like the accessibility that online learning provides and students still need to have that option. Some have grown very accustomed to it; I know that I have grown very accustomed to learning on Teams and Zoom. As well as that, when it comes to exams, it is important to point out that, in 2020, students who were getting their final grades — there was a lot of back and forth around that — eventually got them based on past performance. This year, it is completely different: instead, although students do not know what their weighting is, assessments are being used to arrive at final grades, even though they have evidence from past years that can provide a better and clearer picture for teachers. It is quite interesting to see that the Department is prioritising new assessments that are in a completely different form for those students — online assessments that they, maybe, struggle to do or struggle with in comparison with in-person exams.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): I think that Cormac wants to come in there as well.

Mr Savage: I cannot find the raised-hand function on StarLeaf, so I am just waving at you.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): We will go old school. [Laughter.]

Mr Savage: CCEA's definition of evidence needs to be overhauled. The guidance that was issued to schools on Friday needs to be immediately rescinded and replaced by something that is realistic and is not going to break our students when they come back to school. I have heard from so many students, here today and through our social media channels, that on their return on 22 March, their schools will begin a suite of exams. Obviously, I totally agree that well-being should come first when we go back. We are hearing that other schools will be doing the same thing with exams after the break. Again, they are allowing for that week before the Easter break to be a catch-up, all of which will be learning focused and in classes, trying to recap on what has been done in the last eight weeks online.

SSUNI has proposed that teachers should be allowed to use their professional judgement. It is totally a repeat of 2020 all over again, except that this year, instead of an algorithm, it is CCEA and unworkable guidance. The requirements that CCEA set out for what makes good evidence are shocking. CCEA will claim that the use of past papers is not good evidence. Every teacher in Northern Ireland probably uses past-paper questions to assess their exam-year students, because that resource is there for them to use. With teachers having one set of CCEA support material, as the Minister announced, it almost feels like CCEA is trying to force teachers into having these sets of exams. If teachers follow the guidance to the letter, that is exactly what many students will have to do. There will be a quick-fire class test to try to cover everything. We want to expand the definition of "evidence", put trust back in teachers and let students know what is deciding their grades, instead of using exams from October that they did not know would be used for their grade.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Thanks for that. I need you to be fairly brief in your final comments and questions, Robbie. Thanks.

Mr Butler: No problem, Chair. I said that I would do a little bit of a sandwich: the good, the bad and probably the ugly at the end here, with my face on the screen. Thanks for that, guys. It was really useful.

Let us wind the clock forward a little bit, not just to return to exams, or the assessments or whatever they are. Let us wind the clock forward a little bit and say that there is a normal return in September and that COVID is a distant memory. What are the priorities? What needs to happen next? Once we get through this — we will get through this — the Committee will do things, and the Minister, I am sure, will take them on board — hopefully. What do we do? How do we prioritise the next steps once we get through the current crisis?

Mr Taylor: Thank you for the question, Robbie. We mentioned previously the mental health framework that was brought out last week or the week before. We had a look at the framework and the strategy, and it seems that there is an absence of detail there. Everything mentioned in it is brilliant, and it would solve a lot of the problems going forward. However, there is no direction whatsoever on who will provide it or how long it will take. There is no timeline. It says that there will be £5 million in the first year and an additional £1·5 million every year after that, but we have concerns about some of the proposals. For example, we have a lot of concerns about the counselling pilot for primary-school students, because if the pilot is cancelled after a year, will the kids who are receiving counselling during that year be provided with support outside of that after it finishes? We reached out to Minister Weir this week, and he replied saying that, basically, he does not know. He does not know how the counselling will be done or about the outline of the framework. The implementation plan is equally vague. First of all, we need to get a framework that is actually a framework rather than a list of bullet points that would be really good in practice. There needs to some sort of realism that shows us how it will be developed, who it will be developed with and how much it will cost.

Mr Dalzell: You mentioned going into next year. When we were at a group, we talked about maybe repeating the year. We spoke to each member, and the responses were split. Some people thought that they had not got enough support at home and had not got the learning that they should have, but I felt that I had done well and was OK to go into the next year. We feel that there should be a choice. That means that children going into P1 can move into the year, but children who want to stay behind and repeat the year have that option. We also think that the counselling needs to go into the new year. It needs to be daily so that people can talk to the counsellor, and it needs to be individual counselling, not just a group to help with mindfulness or whatever. It needs to be individual so that they can think about individual problems.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Thanks for that, folks. Is that OK, Robbie?

Mr Butler: Yes. Thank you, Chair. Thank you, everybody, for your input today. It has been really good.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Thanks for that, Robbie, and thanks to the witnesses as well.

Mr Humphrey: Thanks to everyone for the powerful presentations this morning and for all your hard work. There is a massive corpus of information there that will be hugely important for government as we go forward.

I will touch initially on the percentages that Morgan's presentation mentioned. There are some very stark figures there: 65% of respondents commented adversely on the quality of remote learning, and 71% of self-isolating students said that their mental health has suffered. In my constituency, North Belfast, which includes the greater Shankill, the other pandemic, as I call it, has been playing out on the ground. There are huge issues in mental health, mindfulness and suicide awareness. That is a huge and growing problem, as we all know.

There are questions that the Committee needs to ask about the EA and the lack of guidance to schools. I sit on a Shine group with the Boys' Model, the Girls' Model, Belfast Royal Academy and Hazelwood Integrated College. I talk to the principals and the reps of those schools. It should not be the case that money for counselling, although I am not underplaying the importance of counselling, should come out of mainstream, front-line school budgets. That is something on which we need a joined-up approach.

Inez made a very good point. I hope that I am quoting her correctly when I say that poor mental health is "an epidemic" in Northern Ireland. She is right, and that is hugely accurate. I put that point to the mental health champion, Professor O'Neill, and the Minister. We need a joined-up approach on those things. There should be a rebooting for young people for the return to school. There needs to be a joined-up approach not only between the Department of Education and the Education Authority, obviously, but between DFC, the Department of Health, the Public Health Authority and the Churches and youth organisations in order to support those youth bodies, including uniformed organisations. What do our representatives and guests think of that approach?

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Who would like to come in on that?

Mr Shuttleworth: In your constituency, North Belfast, a lot of funding is needed, especially for mental health and schools in general. I am aware that Daniel Black, a young boy in your area, killed himself only a few weeks ago due to the lack of services and help that should have been available for him. In those cases, we can only hope that we learn to get the help where it is needed. In schools where tragedies like that have happened, more opportunities have already been created for young people to seek help, but we should not need things like that to happen for help to be there. It should not come as a response. The phrase I like to use is that mental health strategies should be more proactive than reactive. That hammers home what you were saying.

Mr Humphrey: I am happy if the others want to come in. Part of the problem that we have identified locally is that there can at times be insufficient joined-upness, shall we say. There is valuable work ongoing through the likes of Extern, Integrated Services for Children and Young People and so on, but sometimes, the lack of joined-upness is a problem. What is your view on that, Morgan, or other colleagues?

Mr Shuttleworth: I agree. The one good thing to come out of the pandemic is the cooperation between the Department of Education and the Department of Health. Hopefully, that will be ongoing for the foreseeable future for mental health. Counselling in schools is funded by Education, but CAMHS is funded by the Department of Health. It is almost a lottery in what service is going to help you. There are different fundings for different schools and different places. I go to quite a well-funded school in south Belfast, and the counselling services there are shocking, so I cannot even imagine what they are like in places that do not have the same funding and do not have the same number of counsellors accessible in the area who can go to the school.

Mr Humphrey: If none of the others have any views on those issues, I will move on to my next point.

We can touch on responsiveness. As a governor of two schools, one a primary school and the other a secondary school, I know that there huge issues, which some of the contributors today touched on, about young people learning remotely. Parental and familial support in many homes is excellent, but that is not the case in every home by any stretch of the imagination. Friend and peer support for older children is an issue. Obviously, the lack of technology in many homes has been an issue, and the Committee has touched on that. What are the views of the contributors on cooperation and communication with providers?

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): William, your question is on family support and digital access, yes?

Mr Humphrey: Some seem to be better than others at rolling out and being able to secure the technology for remote learning. Have the contributors any views on those issues?

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Thanks, William. I will bring in Lauren from the Youth Forum.

Ms McAreavey: Yes, I am happy to jump in there. William, I think that North Belfast has done well through its youth organisations on making sure that a joined-up approach has been taken over the last number of months in particular.

On family support, we need to remember that not all parents have all the time in the world to support their young people. They are doing their jobs, and some of them are front-line workers, so we cannot expect the world as well. I think that it is about normalising the situation. We are all human at the end of the day, and we cannot expect the sun, the earth and the moon.

On digital poverty, more could be done to get access to resources. Packs could be made etc. I can see Cormac agreeing with me. I know that schools have been doing that, but more has to be done, such as government linking up with technical firms to get the connectivity resources to link up. We have seen it happen in other areas of the UK, so why can we not push for more here?

Mr Buntin: On distance learning, especially in primary schools, we have heard from primary-school principals that what you can do online with the first classes that are coming back, that is, primary 1, 2 and 3, is very limited. Those years are all about key skills, relationships, manners and things like that, and it is really hard to convey those through an iPad screen. So, we think that, on the return, there needs to be a back-to-basics approach.

On technology and digital poverty, it is the reality that some families have four kids and one iPad and that they are fighting over it, and that has to be taken into account when schools get back. Because of that, children will be at different stages, based on the technology that they have, and that needs to be considered during the return.

Mr Humphrey: Chairman, many of my questions have been answered, so, if you want to move on, I am happy enough. Thank you very much, everybody. Keep up the great work. It is very impressive indeed.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Thanks for that, William.

Ms Brogan: Again, thanks to everyone for attending the Committee meeting today. It has been really good to hear from you. It is so important that your voices are heard, and I think that it is very important overall that children and young people get a say in decision-making and moves going forward. The Chair alluded to that, and I definitely back it up. Keep being heard. Somebody mentioned that you should get in touch with us, either as a Committee or as individual members, with any issues that you have. Our job is to bring forward your message, so please do that.

Your evidence has been stark. Although many of us feel that we know what children and young people are going through, to hear it put in this manner really brings it home to us, so thanks for doing that.

Young people have paid a huge price throughout the pandemic, and we certainly acknowledge that. We know that you have sacrificed a lot, and, again, we thank you for that. Now, it is about helping you to get out the other side of it. That is what we are here for.

I agree with a number of comments saying that the delay in decision-making by the Education Minister and the Department of Education and their poor communication of the decisions that have been made caused massive problems for everybody involved. It created more confusion and has been a real frustration, so I definitely agree with you there. As Committee members, we have continually called for plans to be aired swiftly and communicated clearly, so we back you up on that.

I have a question about the return to school. Inez, you spoke about your fear, after the first lockdown and returning to school in September, of bringing the virus home to your grandmother and family in general. Do you, as a group, still have those fears, or with the vaccination roll-out are you a bit more confident about going back to school? Others mentioned having general anxieties and stress about going back because they have been at home for so long and it is now almost strange to go back into that classroom environment with the noise and distractions that are there. How are you feeling about going back this time?

Ms Close: There is still a lot of fear about going back to school. I am still quite afraid of going back to school and maybe bringing the virus home to members of my family who could be vulnerable or even accidentally spreading it to my friends' families, who may be vulnerable.

When we went back to school in September, my school, at least, tried very hard to keep up with social distancing. There were routes in the corridors, and you could go down only one way. There were hand sanitisers, wipes and masks in the hallways. However, as the weeks went on, that slipped. People started slowly not caring that much about it. You would go into a class and there would be no hand sanitiser and no wipes. I am just worried that the same thing will happen again, and it will be really difficult to take your own precautions and to be safe on your own in the school environment.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Thanks for that, Bronagh. This is a really important issue. Does anyone else want to come in? We will bring in Morgan and then Jay. Anyone else who wants to come in can, because I think it is important that we hear from young people about this matter.

Mr Shuttleworth: Young people are definitely looking forward to going back. Especially with the vaccine roll-out, there are a lot fewer concerns about people bringing the virus back to their family members and the people around them. The one thing that I am still worried about is the exam stress. The best way that I can put that is to detail my situation. I have two-hour English paper the day after we go back, and I have not had an English class since the start of December. In what normal society


sit an exam not having had a class for a few months. The teachers need to take a step back and facilitate the well-being of students before doing the exams. I know that we talked a lot about that today, but that was just to reiterate the point.

Mr Buntin: In our consultation with young people, what we heard over and over, through the committees and Youth Council primarily, is that that fear of the physical side of going back is one of the reservations, if not the only reservation, that young people have about returning. Young people want to get back to school. They want to see their friends, but they are afraid of bringing the virus home.

We had people saying that it is not safe and that they do not think that their school can distance people safely. One thing that stood out for us when we asked people a week or so ago about the return to school was their saying, "I would go back to school tomorrow if it was safe, but it is not". They want to go back, but that is balanced with the fear of it being unsafe.

As I said in our presentation, there seems to be a conflicting message between being told to stay at home and to stay distant and the advice that meeting people is a threat to everyone's physical health, yet going back to back to school and into a classroom of 30 people is safe enough.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Thanks, Jay. Does anyone else want to come in? To supplement that, Nicola will ask how young people feel that they have been communicated to about the safety of the school restart and the mitigations that are in place to ensure that it is safe for you.

Mr McAllister: On the school restart, I am much more confident [Inaudible.]

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Sorry, to pause you for a second. Can I remind everybody to go on mute when you are not speaking to make sure that we can hear one other as clearly as possible?

Mr McAllister: I am much more confident about returning to school safely in the context of the coronavirus. Last March, I was identified as being clinically extremely vulnerable. I chose to still go to school as I thought it was the only way that I would be able to learn. I have now had my first coronavirus vaccine, which has lifted things, so it will be much safer when I return to school. It is important when returning to school to focus on the mental health aspects as well. However, things cannot be the same. We are coming out of remote learning, there are a lot of tensions among young people, who are really stressed [Inaudible.]

Ms Brogan: Thanks, everybody, for all that. We rely on planning from the Minister to have mitigations in place so that you can go back confidently and do not have to be nervous. I fully agree that mental health should be first. Morgan, you said that you will be sitting an English paper the day after you go back. That is too much stress. I cannot believe you are expected to do that. I am sure that there are reasons, but I agree that mental health and well-being should be at the forefront of the return to school. There will be time to do exams and to get back to the academic side of education. It has been really interesting to hear from you all, so thank you for that.

It was International Women's Day this week, and because I am the only female on the Education Committee, there is an onus on me to bring up gender equality. When you considered the effect of the pandemic on children and young people and their mental health, did you identify any gender-specific issues?

Ms Armstrong: From my perspective, women are a lot more open to talking about their mental health issues. I know that in my school, a number of people have, unfortunately, tried to attempt harm, and most of them have been girls. I guarantee that that number is far higher, as boys are not as open about talking about their mental health issues, and that is across the board, not just with young people. The stigma around mental health issues needs to be removed. I am very open about the fact that I have gone for counselling, and other people should not be ashamed of going. A lot of young people have experienced mental health issues over the pandemic. They may come across on social media as if they have not a care in the world and are strong and fine, but they can be crumbling to pieces at home. The digital age is really affecting people. With online learning, teachers are not asking children how they are doing. Teachers are not seeing children's day-to-day environment, but if someone says, "Are you OK? What is going on?", there is a big thing behind that.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Thanks, Sophia. Does anyone else want to come in on that really important question from Nicola? OK. Nicola, do you want to come back in?

Ms Brogan: Yes. Sophia, thank you for that. It is so important to hear from young people because I feel that they are a lot braver than they were in previous generations. You are willing to talk about these things in order to make sure that mental health does not continue to be a taboo subject. It is so important that we discuss it in a public forum so that people know that it is OK to reach out and ask for help. Again, I appreciate your contribution.

One other question that I want to ask, which is slightly off-topic, is about females and period poverty. Do you think that that is a significant source of stress for young girls at school?

Ms Close: That is a great question. I have been involved in some of the period poverty stuff with my mum's work. To this day, a lot of young girls are still embarrassed about getting their period, especially when they cannot afford the products that they need. I definitely think that, for some young people, it is a major stressor in their life that contributes to their mental health issues.

Ms Armstrong: There is a period poverty campaign, and, in my school, there is a red box in the girls' bathroom for sanitary products, which the PE teachers provide for free. They pay out of their own pockets to provide the products for students. Teachers having to pay for students' sanitary products to make them feel comfortable in a school environment says a lot about what is going on and a lot about how women in particular and anybody who experiences a period feels pressured into not being able to go to school because they cannot afford products.

Ms Court: In our school, you have to go to the nurse if you do not have any pads or whatever you need. That is really hard, especially for first to third years, who have just got their period and are unaware and still figuring it out for themselves. It is a really hard process to have to talk to an older person about something so personal, and there is still a lot of stigma if you are talking to a female nurse or another woman.

Having period products available in toilets in secondary schools is vital. It saves a lot of embarrassment and discomfort for kids. Most schools are traditional, and girls have to wear a skirt. Wearing a skirt when you are on your period is a very stressful experience, and most schools do not offer women the chance to wear trousers. I have found that myself. I wear trousers in school, but I had to do a lot of work to get there, and it is only for me because my school was unwilling to see the necessity for women to wear trousers. It is not just a period thing; it is a personal thing, but if you are looking at it from a period perspective, you are a lot more comfortable and secure when you are wearing trousers and you do not feel as vulnerable. As well as period poverty, there is a greater need to look at the different things that are associated with periods.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Thanks so much for that.

Ms Brogan: Yes, thanks to the three of you so much for that. Like mental health, it is really important to keep talking about it so that it is not a taboo subject. I know that a lot of work has taken place recently to address period poverty, but there is still a lot of work to do. It was really interesting to hear from you. Thank you.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Thanks for raising that, Nicola. As you said, the Committee has met Homeless Period Belfast about period poverty, and I was privileged to present a petition in the Assembly on it, so I think that it is fair to say that the Education Committee is fully behind the campaign to make sure that period products are freely available in all schools.

You talked about another important issue that was raised with me recently, which is permission to wear trousers. Period products and the permission to wear trousers should just be available in schools. It is quite shocking that we are not there yet, so, thank you, Nicola for raising that, and thank you to all the young women who spoke on those issues.

Mr McNulty: Cormac, Morgan, Sophia, Inez, Odhran, Matthew, Theo, Jay, Lauren, Jack, Bronagh and Taisie, considering that the content of your presentation was so frightening, troubling, challenging, worrying, scary and unsettling, your delivery was inspirational. It was articulate, assured, authentic, impassioned and world-class. Many people live vicariously through you: friends, family and classmates. When you do something good, it makes them feel good. When you do something strong, it makes them feel strong. When you do something powerful, it makes them feel powerful. Do not underestimate the impact that you guys are having on the people you know by the way that you have delivered. Your parents, families, communities, teachers, classmates and organisations will be so proud of you, but the people who should be most proud are you. Be very proud. Take a well-earned bow. The rapport shown in your presentation and your energy, enthusiasm, destigmatising nature and power of communication were staggeringly positive. Well done.

The Crisis Cafe has the hashtag #empoweringyoungpeople. You guys are empowering not just young people but the world. It is incredibly powerful. Well done to each and every one of you.

You have all been challenging to us, as elected representatives. Credit to you for that. Society has a bright future with you guys coming behind us. I am looking behind me knowing that you are on my tracks. It makes me feel brilliant to know that that quality of strong person is coming behind us.

You challenged us, and now I am going to challenge you. People are inspired by what you have done today, as I said. There are people sitting at home, watching this online and thinking, "I could never do that". You have overcome your fears, you have been brave, you have overcome your inhibitions and your shyness, and you are the people who are comfortable speaking at the top of the class. There are those sitting at home thinking, "I could never do that. Look, there's Inez. I could never do that". I want you to reach out to those people. Pick out one person each and reach out to that person you know who is sitting at home thinking that they are inadequate. Reach out to that person and say, "I did that today for you. That was for you. You can do it too. You can come behind me, and I will help and support you to do that". That is a challenge for each and every one of you.

I am worried about screen time. It has spiked during the pandemic. I am spending too much of my life in front of a screen. My eyesight has deteriorated throughout the pandemic, and I feel that my physical well-being has deteriorated. As young people, what is your perspective on screen time?

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): That is a good question, Justin. I have Bronagh, and then Matthew and Sophia.

Ms Close: Maintaining screen time at a low level has been so difficult during the pandemic. Before the pandemic, if I was going out with friends, I would not be on my phone for the entire time, but, now, I have nothing else to do. It is the only way that I can contact my friends. I have to be on my phone for online classes, and I have to complete my work online on a computer and hand it in online. It is emotionally draining to be on the phone, iPad or computer all day knowing that you cannot do anything about it, because you have to use it. I know that many people get migraines from looking at screens for so long. My eyes are constantly sore from looking at a screen, but it is really difficult to reduce your screen time since you need it so much for online school.

Mr Taylor: I echo what was said. Research was conducted by, among others, Emily McGlinchey at Queen's on media use during the COVID lockdown. I do not mean social media specifically but Netflix and those sorts of things. It found that there was a significant correlation between higher media consumption and higher levels of anxiety and depression, specifically among young people, and that is a huge issue. Take social media. A couple of years ago, there was a huge increase in self-harm because it was being promoted on Instagram, for example. Those sorts of issues are perhaps not talked about enough. There is no safeguarding when it comes to what people can see on social media.

From my experience of being in my first year at uni, I know that there is nothing really to do outside of schoolwork. You do your work, but, because there is nothing outside of it, there is no incentive for you to do it. That has certainly been a big issue. The majority of students probably work at a desk in their bedroom. That is meant to be the place where you sleep and relax, but it has now also become the place where you do so much work. I find it really difficult to relax and am working for Pure Mental a lot of the time. I have schoolwork and Pure Mental, and there is no opportunity for me to relax. I have been shielding and have seen my friends only once or twice since July. That has really been a struggle for me. Social media is all well and good, but it does not compare to communicating face to face.

Ms Armstrong: I am in a very privileged position, in that my school provided iPads for the entire sixth form to use, which is incredible. I feel, however, that my life is completely dictated by the iPad. Notifications go off at perhaps 11.00 pm or 12.00 am, as teachers post work for the next day. You also do not need to go into school to complete the work and can instead just open the iPad that is beside your bed and do it then and there. Sometimes, I am sitting up to 2.00 am or 3.00 am before I say, "Actually, I need sleep". It is so easy to do work.

Students no longer have a creative outlet. They cannot go and see their friends or socialise outside their home. Instead, it is a case of go for a walk or perhaps to the shop. Work is actually an outlet.

I have poured a lot of my passion into my school's students' union, because I have nowhere else to put it unless I am doing work. I would work 24 hours a day if I could, because there is no limit or no teacher to say, "OK. Stop for today" or, "Do not do that". There is nothing to stop students from working continuously, getting lockdown fatigue or having their eyesight deteriorate because of the amount of time that they spend on an iPad, computer or whatever it is that they are using.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): OK. I will bring in Inez and Lauren very briefly.

Ms Murray: Thank you very much. Can you hear me OK?

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Yes. You are dedicated. You have stayed with us even while you are out walking. We appreciate it.

Ms Murray: Sorry.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): No, thank you. Go ahead.

Ms Murray: My point is very similar to what Sophia said. There is never off time. At least in school, you know that, at 3.20 pm, although you may have to go home to do a bit of homework and study, the schoolwork is over for the day and that there are a finite number of things that you need to do. With the lockdown, it does not stop for young people. They feel as though there is always something more to do, especially given the uncertainty around exams. In my case, as an A-level student, we do not know whether it will be our A2 1 or, in my case, A2 2, and you just do not know which notes to make or what homework to do. You therefore just throw yourself at everything.

There is also the social aspect. You spend all your school time at a screen, but you have to be at a screen to socialise as well. It is kind of worse for your mental health, because, once you come off that Zoom call and hit the "Leave" button, you miss socialising even more and miss your friends. You know that that is not the way that is supposed to be. You are supposed to be with your friends and talking to them, and it makes you feel even more empty and more upset about the pandemic. My screen time and that of my friends has gone through the roof. I hope that that answers your question.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Thanks for that. We are glad that you are on the screen with us today, but, after that answer, I feel that I should get us off these screens.

Ms McAreavey: We are seeing that young people are busier than ever, because they are committing to so many things. As Sophia said, young people are picking up as many things as possible to keep busy. They are doing work to all hours at night. My bed is right behind me here. We are basically living in one room. My mum is downstairs working right now. My dad is furloughed. He is downstairs in the kitchen, so there is nowhere else for me to go. Facilities and other resources are closed. Young people who engage with youth organisations or who volunteer are having to do that online. There is no other outlet for them. I have started volunteering in my community on outreach because it gets me out of the house and away from the screen. That is my dedicated time of the week that I am away from it.

Mr McNulty: Thanks for those answers. The concept of Crisis Cafe and Pure Mental is absolutely ingenious. They can be really powerful forces for good, not just at a local level but globally. Their potential is enormous. Well done to you for creating them and to the other groups represented today, who have all spoken very powerfully.

Do you know, guys, that the Education Minister was supposed to be here today? We are now eating into the time that he was supposed to occupy, but, for me, this is better. I am glad that the Minister is not here, because this is more important. We are getting information from the coalface and from people who really understand what is happening on the ground. This is so much more important.

Morgan said that a mental health strategy should be proactive as opposed to reactive. I fully agree. How are you being careful not to compartmentalise mental health, understanding that the human system is interlinked and interconnected? Our mental health is connected to our physical health, to our emotional health and to our spiritual well-being.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Inez had her hand raised immediately, so I had better bring her back in. If anyone else wants to come in on that, attract my attention. Morgan, I missed you a couple of times previously. Apologies. I will bring you in after Inez.

Mr Shuttleworth: Thanks.

Ms Murray: Thank you very much. That is a very good point. Sometimes, you can focus too much on it, or rather compartmentalise it into something that is just mental, and we know that other aspects are then impacted on. At Crisis Cafe, we have been trying to address those things. We hold exercise classes with a local young person who runs a fitness blog and a fitness page. She has been very kind to lend her time. That has helped our young people get active and see other young people, although I am sure that a lot of the cameras are off when they working out.

We have worked with a sleep expert, who has helped our young people improve their sleep, and also a dietician. Through our self-care calendar, which I mentioned before, we have touched on many other aspects that can impact on people's mental health, such as discrimination. We touched on that and on how to be an ally to minority communities. We also touched on body image. This week, my friend and I are doing one on eating and relationships with food. We know that that can also impact on your mental health. That is just what we are doing as a cafe, but the other organisations are working on other things as well.

It kind of hits home. As you said, it is very important that we do not compartmentalise mental health, because so many other things feed into it, such as body image, our relationship with food, our relationships with friends and family, and our relationship with our community, especially in Northern Ireland, which a society that needs to work more cross-community every day. It is important that we consider those other aspects, but we as organisations are trying to do so. I hope that that answers the question.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): That was an exceptional response, Inez. Thank you.

Mr Shuttleworth: To reiterate Inez's point about stopping the compartmentalisation of mental health, the closest thing that I can think of to her examples is around learning in home economics in junior school about the Eatwell plate and having a balanced diet. That was it. There was nothing about how to deal with exam stress or how to deal with feeling down. Ultimately, it really is up to schools and the Department to hammer home the message that it is OK not to be OK and to help students deal with that and get the help that they need.

Mr McNulty: You mentioned the issue of 30 people on a Zoom call and how that impacts on education and on the teacher's ability to reach out to kids and young people one on one.

How concerned are you that, because of the lack of connectivity through not being in the classroom, teachers are not able to identify young people who possibly come from troubled homes? In the classroom, they would be able see whether there is a problem or issue, whereas on Zoom you cannot. I would like your feedback, anecdotal or otherwise, on how not having the outlet and protection provided by schools and teachers is impacting on young people. What are your thoughts and concerns on that?

Mr Savage: There definitely has been an impact on how teachers are able to perform their safeguarding and child protection roles. Teachers not seeing young people crosses over into the mental health issue as well. In my online classes, we have our cameras off, and our mics are muted most of the time because, as the Committee knows, if they are not, you will hear noise when someone is speaking. Teachers are therefore not able to perform the same job, because there is not the same level of interaction with students. The best way in which to describe it is that a lot of our online classes feel like lectures, because it is hard to have engagement similar to a classroom online. That is through no fault of our teachers. Those are just the limitations of the technology.

Teachers will have a really difficult time spotting students who are struggling with their mental health. We recommended in the mental health report that teachers be given annual training to spot the signs of mental health issues in the same way in which they are given training on safeguarding. Given that safeguarding issues affect one in 10 of our young people and mental health issues affect one in four, teachers should be given mental health first-aid training at least once a year, as well as having it added to their PGCE and BEd qualifications. There has definitely been a giant impact on how well teachers, through no fault of their own, can perform that safeguarding role. It is simply down to the limitations of the virtual classroom.

Mr Shuttleworth: I will be brief. Cormac and I have had the same brainwave. I was thinking the exact same thing. Online classes feel like lectures. I have only two a week, and I am sure that loads of other people are in the same situation, so there is very little opportunity for teachers to engage with students in that way and ask, "Are you OK?". If there are serious signs that students are struggling with their mental health, there are no opportunities to consult them on that.

In a normal year, I would argue that teachers are unaware of how to deal with some issues. For example, if someone has a panic attack in a class, does the teacher know how to respond to that and where to direct the student for help? Pastoral care teams have their own roles in every school, but, in most schools, your head of year will be part of the pastoral care team. If your head of year is a big, 6-foot rugby coach, you will be less inclined to ask for help. In most schools, to access counselling services, you have to go through a member of the pastoral care team.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): You are talking to a 6-foot Gaelic player here, Morgan. You need to go easy. [Laughter.]

Mr McNulty: What is your perspective on sport? When I say "sport", I do not mean just playing Gaelic football, soccer or hockey. What about the lack of access to physical activity as a consequence of lockdown? How debilitating is that for young people? How is it holding you back physically, and, owing to the interlinked nature of the human system, how is it holding you back emotionally and mentally? What are your thoughts on how that activity has been totally stopped and its impact?

Ms McAreavey: I previously discussed the link between mental and physical health. It is vital. I will pull out some statistics from our survey. Some 50% of young people said that gyms should not be closed during lockdown, and 63% disagreed that sports needed to stop during lockdown, feeling that they should continue. Young people are engaging with others when they do exercise. The endorphins that you get when you do exercise bring a feel-good energy, and that is the key thing that we are lacking right now. It is great to say, "We will do something outside" or, "I can do yoga in my room", but those are still controlled environments. The lack of green spaces in some areas impacts on young people's access to exercise as well. It is about bringing back that energised way of life and regaining all that excitement from sport, because it makes us feel better and good, and that brings wit it positive impacts.

Mr McNulty: Absolutely. Inez, can you give me some information about Crisis Cafe? What were you doing before the pandemic hit, what are you doing during it and what do you intend to do afterwards?

Ms Murray: Thank you very much for that question, Justin. I mentioned this to Robin earlier. Before the pandemic and lockdown, and again when the public health restrictions eased, we had friendship cafes. Every Thursday, young people could come in. It was a friendly and social environment that was, obviously, COVID-safe. It allowed young people to forget about exams, the uncertainty and everything else. It allowed them to forget about the fact that there was a pandemic around them. It allowed them just to be young people again, which is what we have kind of forgotten about over the year.

We also had a drop-in service on a Sunday, which was similar to the friendship cafe but with fewer people, thus allowing people to ease themselves into the social environment. Once they felt comfortable — perhaps after a week or two — they could ask for the one-to-one clinical counselling in a non-clinical setting, and that has been really beneficial to anyone whom I have talked to. It is anonymous, but anyone who has come forward and talked about it has said that it really helped them. Sometimes, people are afraid to go to their GP. We are all here today because we are outspoken young people, but some young people are afraid to speak out. That was a valuable service. Like all the other organisations, we have had to pivot to an online model. We have been able to do that, however. We have been offering friendship supports through ambassador cafes. Ambassadors are people who represent our cafe. They may use it themselves, but they try to promote it to their friends as well. We have also hosted social events, including a quiz.

What has really helped us during lockdown is empowering young people through our self-care calendar. As I said, it is a range of activities, reflections and thoughts on different topics every week. We have done body image, anxiety, isolation and loneliness, identity and expression, self-empowerment, and all the other things that really matter to young people and can help them improve their mental health. As I mentioned, we have also hosted talks such as the one that we did with the sleep expert and the one that we did with a dietician. We also host exercise events. We are looking at how we can empower young people. Those self-care calendar ideas used to come from us, but now they come from the young people, because we are a youth-led organisation. That is what we have done during lockdown.

Moving forward, we want to work with schools to deliver training to staff and students, which is an issue that Cormac and Morgan touched on. We want to be a student-led organisation in schools. In some schools, we will look at setting up sanctuaries: crisis cafes, almost, in schools. Those would be student-led, by the ambassadors. We have ambassadors in every school in the Newry area. I know that you are a Newry and Armagh MLA, so you will appreciate that. We therefore have those connections to schools. We just need to work on bringing those into a physical place in schools. Doing that pays it forward and creates that link between Crisis Cafe and the school if the school cannot afford or does not have the resources to provide counselling services five days a week. We can do that as Crisis Cafe. We can offer that support to schools. It is about working alongside schools and empowering schools and students to get the best mental health supports that they need, because that is what students deserve. Thank you very much.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Thanks, Inez. I need to bring you to a close, Justin, and bring in Maurice Bradley in finish our session.

Mr McNulty: I just want to say thanks very much. The work that you are doing is inspiring, as was your delivery today. Finally, guys, I will try to live up to the challenge that you have set for me as a politician, which is to do better. I will do my best. Thank you all for your presentations. They are very important. I want you to keep empowering young people, and the world. Well done, folks.

Mr M Bradley: It has been a very worthwhile session, I can assure you. I thank all those who presented. Their enthusiasm and knowledge really shone through. I have found it both informative and uplifting to hear a united voice highlighting the real problems that our children and young people are facing during and coming out of the pandemic.

I will pick up on Justin's point about screen time. Before I was an MLA, I worked in a newspaper office. I would sometimes spend 12 or 13 hours a day in front of a screen. The main problem with that was that I would go home mentally awake and physically tired. It took me a couple of hours to bring my body and mind back into line with each other, mentally and physically. I felt that that led to a lot of tiredness the following day, and sometimes the day after that. There is therefore a danger from too much screen time.

Having sat in front of a computer all day, I also had to wear glasses for driving. Six months after leaving the newspaper industry, my eyesight went back to being perfect, and I do not need to wear glasses any more. There are therefore hidden dangers that we need to be aware of. Sitting in front of a computer, you tend to lose all sense of reality and miss your organised meal times. I sometimes did not get anything to eat from 10:00 am until 10:00 pm. You miss meals, and it can be dangerous to sit in front of a computer for too long.

Robin mentioned something that I have raised previously in the Committee, and that is the need for schools to open up their buildings and facilities to pupils over the summer months, in partnership with local sports clubs and community groups, in the hope of providing physical sporting opportunities and opportunities for social interaction. I include STEM clubs in that, to give less sporty or sport-minded young people the chance to explore other subjects such as drama, art and music. How does the panel feel about properly funded activities outside school time being expanded and about an expansion of organised summer activities as we try to have a normal life, or as normal a life as possible, during the pandemic?

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Do you want to come in on that, Morgan?

Mr Shuttleworth: I wholeheartedly agree with that. There is no reason that school buildings should not be used by community groups during the summer. Schools should probably have been doing that before the pandemic, but especially this year, so that people can have time to catch up with their friends and time to enjoy the activities that they love. The schools should just say to the students that the sports hall, the library and the music room are there, and here are the hours that they are open so that they can use them whenever they like, rather than have them open alongside the scheduled activities run by the community groups that use the buildings.

Mr Savage: When we launched our mental health report on Zoom — some Committee members were there as panelists for our Q&A session — Professor Siobhán O'Neill had already presented a very similar plan to another live event. It would be very beneficial for children and young people to be able to have the sorts of social interactions that they have missed out on during the pandemic and to get back into the familiar and comfortable school environment to have those organised activities: everything from sport to drama and music. Funding for that should be prioritised and made available. That is key to putting well-being first and educational recovery and catch-up second.

Mr M Bradley: Shared education was mentioned in the presentations. I am a great believer in shared education and integrated education, because they give kids a chance to meet fellow students from different backgrounds . They provide partnerships and opportunities to engage in meaningful learning experiences, not counting the friendships that are forged and the barriers that are broken down. I enthusiastically support that concept, but the existence of the controlled, Catholic maintained, Irish-medium and integrated education systems are, in some instances, not good value for money. What are the young people's thoughts on having one education system that allows all the aforementioned to have a shared and integrated education as its ethos?

Ms Armstrong: I have only ever known integrated education, as I have only ever gone to integrated schools. On Friday, as the SSUNI's community relations officer, I will be having the last of our meetings with the sectoral bodies. We have been talking to each of them about their unique challenges, and it is really important for the different bodies, such as Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta (CnaG), which represents Irish-medium schools, to be able to have their cultural aspects in the background. One body would not necessarily maintain that to the degree that CnaG is doing now. Looking at it from a perspective of having a body that looks after all schools and makes sure that the funding goes out adequately, however, I think that, when talking to each of the sectoral bodies, funding seems to be a bit of an issue, and it is one that has been brought up with us numerous times. Having one body that looks after all the funding would be incredible, but that is not the case at the minute.

I am on the working group on shared education, and, as I have said before, I am sometimes quite critical of shared education, but I always look at it from the perspective that I have made so many amazing friendships through it, and I have missed those during this lockdown. I was involved with the EA for eight years with the Together: Building a United Community (T:BUC) programmes, and having lost that opportunity last year and this year, my not being able to maintain those friendships is really affecting me. I am quite extrovert, and not being able to maintain a relationship amongst the communities, particularly on the peninsula, is really affecting me.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Thank you for that, Sophia.

Mr M Bradley: Chair, I am pushed for time. I have a hospital appointment at 1.00 pm, but I will say one thing on the issue of counselling. The feedback that I get from schools is that there is not enough counselling available. We have had extra money from the Executive to cope with the COVID pandemic, but we need to get extra money from the Executive to deal with post-COVID issues in education, with particular emphasis placed on providing extra counselling places in schools and on having greater availability of counselling in a safe and confidential school setting. With that, Chair, I have to shoot. My apologies to the rest of panel.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Thank you, Maurice, and good wishes for your appointment.

Mr M Bradley: Thank you very much. Bye.

The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): All the best.

Members and young people, that brings us to the end of our session. Thank you so much for giving so much of your time and for all the work that you are doing on your advocacy on behalf of yourselves, your friends and your peers. It is inspirational and challenging. As Justin said, we will do our best to step up to the mark for you on the issues that you raised. We will review those now with the Committee Clerk and agree actions that follow on from the evidence session. I think that I speak on behalf of all Committee members when I say that this has been a really uplifting session with you. We will do all that we can to partner with you going forward.

Good wishes to you in everything that you are doing at the moment to return, as soon as possible, to your routines, to school and to college. I look forward to hearing about what you all achieve in the future. There are people here who are going places. Thank you very much indeed, guys. I hope that you valued your engagement with us today as much as we valued our engagement with you.

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