Children in deprived areas are “less emotionally and academically ready” to transition between early years, primary and high school than in previous years due to the impact of the pandemic, researchers have said.

The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) report has said this comes as pupils’ mental health has declined as a result of coronavirus, and Government funding for specialist support services in less affluent schools is urgently needed.

Most school leaders have reported increased anxiety among their students, and a “substantial minority” of mainly secondary school leaders noted an increase in “severe mental health issues” including self-harm following the pandemic, the NFER said.

More primary school pupils than usual were also reported to be struggling with social skills, confidence and self-esteem, along with vital skills for learning like concentration, memory and stamina.

The report said that while some schools had increased their pastoral support in response to this, many were “constrained by a lack of funds, capacity and expertise”.

The NFER also urges the Government to address widening educational inequality, including by providing digital devices for pupils with no remote access, and renewing the focus on supporting vulnerable children, particularly those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said the task of helping children in deprived areas recover from the affects of the pandemic is “formidable”.

He said: “It is true that many children from deprived backgrounds have had a very different pandemic to their more affluent peers.

“The challenge facing schools in helping these children to recover is formidable.

“Fortunately, there already exists a wealth of knowledge within the profession about how to narrow achievement gaps. We can trust schools to put in place a long-term approach based on what they know about the needs of their pupils.

“Ultimately, though, their success depends on the funding and resources they are given by government.”

He added: “Sadly, it seems clear that education and children’s futures, especially those from deprived backgrounds, are not a priority for this Government.”

Mr Whiteman described the Government’s funding for schools during the pandemic as “risible”, adding that a recent NAHT survey found 87% of school leaders do not believe that the Covid recovery funding they have received is sufficient.

He said that the change to “pupil premium reporting” has meant “thousands of children who would have been eligible for free school meals” have been denied funding, meaning the Government’s investment in recovery has “immediately been swallowed up by this stealth cut”.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), agreed that more funding for deprived schools is urgently needed.

He added: “The Government must, as the report recommends, boost specific investment for wellbeing and mental health support both in schools and for specialist Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services.

“This latter priority pre-dates the pandemic with schools often reporting severe difficulties in accessing services which are obviously inadequately funded and unable to cope with demand.”

Funded by the Nuffield Foundation, the NFER report is based on in-depth interviews with senior leaders of 50 mainstream primary and secondary schools across England, predominantly serving deprived populations.