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Poor mental health and long waits for support are fuelling school absence, say charities

24 April 2024

Growing levels of school absence are being exacerbated by poor mental health among young people, made worse by poverty and long waits for support, according to a new report.

Not in school: The mental health barriers to school attendance says that levels of school absence have risen at the same time as escalating mental health problems among young people. One in five children now experiences a mental health difficulty, up from one in nine in 2017. Many wait unacceptable lengths of time to receive support which in turn prevents them from engaging in education.

The report by Centre for Mental Health and the Children & Young People’s Mental Health Coalition says that punitive approaches to improving attendance, such as fining parents, won’t work. They may even make matters worse, especially for families struggling with poverty and unmet mental health needs.

School absences have continued to soar beyond pre-pandemic levels, with one in five children ‘persistently absent’ from school (missing 10% or more school time). Some 150,000 children are now classed as ‘severely absent’ – a rise of 150% since figures in 2018-19.

Not in school finds that pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) are much more likely to miss school. This is being exacerbated by long waits for SEND diagnosis and subsequent support in schools. Families struggling with the cost of living are also at greater risk of missing school when they cannot afford the basics such as school uniform or food.

While the Government has introduced several measures to address the problem – including new guidance, ‘attendance champions’ and a worrying rise in parental fines – Not in school says that these have so far been ineffective. The briefing notes that, despite evidence that punitive approaches such as sanctions put additional strain on families’ wellbeing, the Government has recently said it will increase such fines.

The briefing says that the Government can boost school attendance and support children to learn by increasing the availability of mental health support both in schools and the community, by boosting access to SEND diagnoses and support, and by reducing the use of sanctions-based approaches.

Andy Bell, chief executive at Centre for Mental Health, said: “School attendance has deteriorated at the same time as children and young people’s mental health has got worse, especially since the start of the pandemic. The Government needs to support schools to help children and families to boost attendance. This requires systemic change – not punitive approaches that put families under greater pressure.”

Charlotte Rainer, Manager of the Children & Young People’s Mental Health Coalition, said: “It is no coincidence that rates of school absence have risen in parallel with rates of child poverty and mental health problems in children and young people. School absence is a symptom of wider systemic issues, where more children are struggling with their mental health, struggling to afford the basics to attend school, and struggling to get the support they need with their mental health. If the Government is serious about improving children’s attendance at school, it must take action to address the barriers. Supporting mental health must be central to this. This should include increasing the availability of mental health support and implementing whole education approaches to mental health.”

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