A LOCAL authority is to investigate working with the voluntary sector to help tackle rising numbers of pupils suffering severe anxiety in schools.

Senior North Yorkshire County Council education officers said they were interested in collaborating with charitable organisations such as North Yorkshire Sport as part of a new-look Medical Education Service (MES) for children with physical or mental conditions preventing them attending class-based lessons.

The move comes as the authority also considers a review of the criteria for which children qualify for the MES, due to the impact of Covid on children’s heightened anxiety about attending school.

Research published in published in JAMA Pediatrics last month found children’s anxiety rates may have almost doubled since the start of the pandemic to a point where one in five are reporting the mental health condition.

The study suggested as the pandemic stretched on, the prevalence of anxiety symptoms increased due to social isolation, family financial stresses, missed milestones and school disruptions.

A meeting of the council’s children and young people’s scrutiny committee heard after being launched last September, the number of MES pupils had increased from 28 to 70 by the end of the summer term, a rise which had been expected following lockdowns. The increase was largely due to children suffering severe anxiety.

In July, 33 per cent of the MES pupils had been referred due to anxiety, 16 per cent were referred after a joint diagnosis which included anxiety and seven per cent due to ASD-related anxiety and three per cent due to a phobia. Just 26 per cent of MES pupils had been referred due to a physical health condition.

Councillors were told the revamped service included an increased range of options for medical tuition, including digital solutions, personal home tuition and group education would enable the delivery of a bespoke package for each child.

Due to technology advances schools’ offer of education for MES pupils can include placing a robot on the child’s classroom space to enable participation in lessons as well as online one-to-one lessons.

However, when questioned over why some areas of the county had higher numbers of MES pupils, officers said one of the main reasons was that needs “are not being identified in schools early enough to prevent that need from becoming more severe”.

An officer told members they were trying to work with schools to be preventative and for action or referrals to start as soon as schools start to see that a child is starting to struggle with social and emotional mental health needs.

The authority is set to underline to schools their statutory duties in a webinar this autumn, which will also set out the new range of options to support children with medical needs and when they should refer issues to the council.