Evaluating the Children and Young People's Mental Health Trailblazer programme

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An early evaluation of the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Trailblazer programme examines the development, implementation and early progress of the 25 mental health support teams created as the first step of the programme.

What is the issue?

The Children and Young People’s Mental Health Trailblazer programme was launched by the government in 2018. Jointly led by the Department of Health and Social Care, Department for Education and NHS England and Improvement, the programme aims to test out new ways of supporting children and young people with mild to moderate mental health problems in educational settings.

The first step of the programme created mental health support teams (MHSTs) in 25 Trailblazer sites across the country. MHSTs are intended to provide early intervention on some mental health and emotional wellbeing issues as well as to help school or college staff provide a ‘whole school approach’ to mental health and wellbeing.

How are we helping?

The BRACE Rapid Evaluation Centre, of RAND Europe and the University of Birmingham, with partners from the Policy Innovation and Evaluation Research Unit, are undertaking an early evaluation of the Trailblazer programme to examine the development, implementation and early progress of the MHSTs in the Trailblazer sites.

The interim report summarises findings from the first phase of fieldwork. Along with extensive data collection, this involved a survey of participating educational settings; a key informants survey of local stakeholders who were playing/ played a central role in the design and implementation of MHSTs in their site; and group interviews with members of the regional teams that were supporting and overseeing implementation of the programme.

What are some of the main findings to date?

  • Setting up the Trailblazers programme locally was a substantial and complex task, and some areas had not fully grasped the scale of the implementation challenge. Despite this, all 58 MHSTs were operational in some form by January 2021, and this was considered a major achievement.
  • MHSTs are expected to “co-produce their approach and service offer with users” (NHS England 2019). This does not appear to be routinely happening. The extent to which children, young people and families have been involved in shaping the design and approach of their local MHSTs is highly variable.
  • Teams had been in operation for a matter of weeks when the COVID-19 pandemic started. There was a considerable fall in referrals to MHSTs in the early months of the pandemic. Referrals rates started to pick up again in summer 2020.
  • Many MHSTs responded to the pandemic by quickly adapting the support they were offering and their ways of working. This included switching to delivering direct support remotely, and many Trailblazers anticipate that they will continue with remote delivery for some elements of their work, although in a blended model with face-to-face approaches.
  • Engagement of schools and colleges was held to be critical to the success of the programme, but also challenging to achieve. It was also suggested that some educational settings needed more help to prepare for the programme and make the most of the support on offer from their MHST.
  • Views on the MHST service were mixed. Schools and colleges universally welcomed the funding of additional capacity for in-house mental health support. At the same time, there were concerns that MHSTs were not able to meet some of the most urgent and unmet mental health needs.
  • One of the most widely reported challenges concerned staffing, and in particular retaining education mental health practitioners once appointed.
  • Evidence of programme impact is emerging. Several local stakeholders reported that the programme was strengthening local partnership working. Some schools and colleges reported positive early effects including staff feeling more confident talking to children and young people about mental health issues; being able to access advice about mental health issues more easily; and quicker access to direct support for children and young people with some mental health problems.

What happens next?

For the next phase of the evaluation, researchers will be speaking to a wider range of stakeholders in six Trailblazer sites and undertaking focus groups with children and young people. The project will also investigate various issues and themes that emerged during the first stage of the work. The findings will be shared in a second report to be published in summer 2022.