Learning about change, loss and bereavement

Amid Brexit chaos, we’d be forgiven for thinking that the business of Parliament had ground to a halt. But last week, the House of Commons did manage to find something that almost all MPs could agree on. And it has the potential to improve children’s understanding of how to support one another – and themselves – at times of change, loss and bereavement.

MPs voted to approve the long-awaited regulations for Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education and Health Education, by 538 votes to 21. But how is this new learning related to children’s ability to cope when someone close to them dies?

The new curricula

Essentially, from September 2020, every pupil in England will now be guaranteed a curriculum that includes health education and relationships education. New statutory guidance sets out what the curricula for these subjects should and must contain, including ‘how relationships may affect physical and mental health and wellbeing‘. The philosophy behind the new subjects is focused on mental well-being:

“Teaching about mental wellbeing is central to these subjects, especially as a priority for parents is their children’s happiness. We know that children and young people are increasingly experiencing challenges, and that young people are at particular risk of feeling lonely. The new subject content will give them the knowledge and capability to take care of themselves and receive support if problems arise.

All of this content should support the wider work of schools in helping to foster pupil wellbeing and develop resilience and character that we know are fundamental to pupils being happy, successful and productive members of society. Central to this is pupils’ ability to believe that they can achieve goals, both academic and personal; to stick to tasks that will help them achieve those goals, even when the reward may be distant or uncertain; and to recover from knocks and challenging periods in their lives.”

Learning about loss and bereavement

Here at the Childhood Bereavement Network, we know that the challenge of bereavement faces the majority of children before they leave school. We’ve long advocated that school should be one of the places where children have an opportunity to learn about change, loss and bereavement. As one young person said

“It’s kind of ironic because it’s the only thing that’s guaranteed in life, but they won’t teach you about it.”

And of course, children are learning about these topics every day – through the news, through their own family experiences, through films, songs and social media. We can’t possibly shield children from these experiences, but we can shield them from feeling alone with their fears and worries. In response to our recent survey, a parent said

“It is very important to help children know what they are experiencing is ‘normal’ or to help them understand what a bereaved classmate is experiencing.”

As well as preparing individual pupils, a school which teaches these topics is also likely to be better prepared if there is a death in the school community: a pupil, parent or staff member. Schools often wish they had planned their response before something happened.

What the curriculum should include

We’ve been advocating for the curriculum to include opportunities to explore and discuss these topics, particularly

  • changes and differences in families
  • life-cycles and understanding death
  • understanding and managing feelings, and seeking help.

As pupils get older, the likelihood that they have themselves experienced bereavement grows. A spiral curriculum allows pupils to explore issues at increasing depth, and with a greater chance that they will be reflecting on their own experiences. They are likely to have questions about fairness/justice, different beliefs around death and bereavement, supporting themselves and others with overwhelming feelings, and finding appropriate support including outside the family.

The opportunities to address these topics are implicit in the new curricula, rather than set out explicitly. And because these topics are sensitive, there is a risk that teachers will avoid teaching them. While the new curricula are a great start, we would have liked to see a stronger steer to schools.

Across the sector, we have more work to do to support teachers, school leaders and governors to understand why these topics matter, the resources that can help to teach them, including curriculum materials, staff training and input from local child bereavement organisations.

What else needs to be in place?

Meeting the needs of all learners on a topic such as bereavement goes beyond the content of the programme of study. Many children’s first experience of death and bereavement will be a personal one: the death of a pet, family member or friend, and so lessons on these topics will speak directly to their own experience.

For this reason, curriculum development must be part of a whole school approach, involving proactive and flexible pastoral support, a system for managing and communicating important information about bereavements, staff training and support, and policy development.

Pupils in special schools are more likely than others to experience the death of a peer, and mainstream schools can learn from the expertise developed by special schools in supporting their communities.

Young people’s suggestions to us about what could help to make school a good place to learn about death and bereavement included

  • teachers checking with young people who have recently been bereaved whether they are happy to join in the lesson
  • no pressure to talk about personal experiences
  • somewhere quiet to go or someone to talk to after the lesson if they are feeling
  • clear suggestions about where to get  further help and support.

What next?

Ahead of September 2020, we’ll be working with CBN members to produce guidance for schools about how to select high quality materials and training. We’ll also be working with OFSTED around their new inspection framework. We think this has the potential to drive change, through inspectors having an eye for how schools are helping pupils prepare for and manage change, loss and bereavement. Read more on our schools work here.

Local child bereavement services can use the new curricula to reach out to schools and remind them of their offer of support to develop both the curriculum and pastoral support.

Schools can find their local child bereavement service here and contact them for details of the support they can offer.