The Government’s response to school absenteeism: policies on mental health and attendance

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Empty chairs in a school classroom

By Dr Sarah Wall, Practitioner Tutor (SEBD), Disability, Inclusion and Special Needs

Recently, a Guardian article suggested that almost one in three pupils are absent from school due to anxiety. The government response to this absenteeism “crisis” is to:

  • Compile local authority (LA) registers for children and young people (C&YP) missing education, using ‘Pupil Attendance Dashboards’.
  • Consistently use fines, issuing fixed penalty notices to non-engaging families.
  • Create new statutory guidance relating to attendance, with sections on Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) and mental health.
  • Introduce measures to cut mental health waiting lists, through a cross-government review
  • Reform SEND support and Alternative Provision (AP), improving identification, and assessment, in mainstream schools, so fewer pupils need specialist input. 

Ostensibly, these suggestions seem sensible. Safeguarding our C&YP, supporting their mental health and wellbeing and accurately identifying and assessing their needs is paramount; however, a system that pressurises, and punishes, families through threats and fines, despite the “interconnectedness of attendance” (how family life negatively impacts attendance, but also how non-attendance negatively affects the family) is not. Families are reporting that such approaches do more harm than good, and affect everyone in the family’s mental health. 

Furthermore, these changes are touted alongside Draconian policies on behaviour, where C&YP must change their actions to suit a school system, and environment, based upon extrinsic rewards, and sanctions, rather than intrinsic motivation. These policies exist in settings where those not learning are punished (e.g., SEND children are removed from classrooms and into their own space); there are over complicated, petty, rules in place (e.g., school uniform regulations) and emphasis is placed upon negative behavioural reinforcement in the form of detentions, isolation rooms and exclusion. 

Even a rewards-based approach (seeming on the surface to be positive) can be both “toxic” to individuals, particularly those with SEND, or complex family circumstances, and reinforce the fact that C&YP can be rewarded, or by exclusion punished, for events out of their control.  Furthermore, Indian research suggests that incentives for attendance have long-term negative effects for those they are designed to support: with attendance dropping further and academic scores decreasing.

Unfortunately, those C&YP, and families, who do not ‘buy into’ the 100% attendance model are often perceived as the ‘problem’, with children, young people, and parents wrongly blamed for attendance issues. C&YP’s attendance may be affected by genuine emotionally based school avoidance; individuals may have experienced trauma, be a young carer, are bullied, or have SEND. 

Often, schools suggest that these C&YP have mental health needs and send individuals for counselling.  While such an approach can be positive if C&YP experience anxiety, depression, or other psychological/psychiatric needs, sometimes the underlying issue will not be ‘fixed’ in this way. Often support is a sticking plaster (treating the symptom) over a much larger wound: if children are anxious about going into school, then the issue may lie with the institution and it is the system that should change not the C&YP, or families. Thus, these needs require support beyond, or instead of, counselling and adjustments should be made within school, not punishments delivered to either the pupils themselves, or the family.

Neither is the issue only related to anxiety. My own family is complex, and I have experience of navigating the system above. Due to health conditions, and our consequent immunocompromised state, should our daughter attend school we (my husband and I) would be risking our health. We believe that the psychological impact of our potential illnesses (which could be life-threatening) outweighs the necessity of educating our daughter in a school environment; therefore, currently, we choose Education Other Than At School (EOTAS) for her. Consequently, I also join other parents and carers who believe that the government’s ‘Moments Matter Attendance Counts’ advertising campaign which encourages C&YP to go into school when anxious, and with runny noses and stomach aches, is both patronising and ableist. More seriously, it could also put people’s lives at risk, including C&YP themselves who are immunocompromised. Clinically vulnerable families have submitted evidence to the government; however, it appears that the contents may have been ignored. Certainly, in my own experience, securing good quality remote learning has been impossible, and I am continually questioned by the LA about my decisions.

Legislation exists ensuring that those with disabilities, or those who are associated with people who have disabilities, do not receive detrimental treatment compared to those who do not share their protected characteristic (Equality Act, 2010, section 13). A direct discrimination, discrimination arising from disability, or a failure to comply with a ‘reasonable adjustment’ (EqA 2010, section 21), claim may be upheld should headteachers/LAs fail to act. Unfortunately, navigating the system is difficult; however, we must challenge it, otherwise our C&YP will continually be absent, and families suffer.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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