School Attendance Policies Negatively Impacting Pupils’ Mental Health

School attendance policies are having a negative impact on the mental health of children and young people, according to campaigners who have been researching the issue amongst UK parents.

Square Peg is concerned about barriers to school attendance, which impacts on children and young people’s ability to attend school. They have been raising awareness around issues causing what was formerly known as ‘anxiety based school avoidance’, but is now better thought of as barriers preventing children from attending.

The organisation has been paying close attention to the Department of Education (DfE) Consultation of Attendance, aiming to ensure families affected by barriers to education are properly represented.

“It’s vital any changes to policy and practice improves outcomes for our children and families who are too often dismissed and denied support, particularly for social, emotional or mental health reasons and hidden disabilities such as chronic illness, Neurodevelopmental conditions or clinical anxiety, Director at Square Peg, Ellie Costello says.”

Ellie also raises concerns about a range of other issues impacting on children and young people, affecting their ability to attend school. These include – having unrecognised or unsupported Send, being a young carer, living in poverty, coming from a Minoritised ethnic background, living in insecure housing, being a Looked after child, receiving Free School Meals, bereaved, are a displaced family or refugee, Job insecurity, English as a second language, or domestic violence.

Ellie says: “When professionals and systems respond to families with derision or a core belief families and children are manufacturing needs and requiring support as attention-seekers or because they are lazy or disengaged troublemakers, the system is at risk of breaching every human, child, family and equality law there is.

“The primary loser is of course, the child, whose development, well-being, attainment and future life outcomes are dramatically and irrevocably reduced.”

Square Peg ran a survey across February half term 2022, working alongside Not Fine In School, a social enterprise supporting the same families. The survey received almost 2000 responses from parents and carers across the UK.

The stark message was that 94 per cent of families feel that school has harmed their child’s mental health.

Results surrounding attendance showed that 21 per cent of pupils had complete non attendance from September 2021. A further 19.5 per cent had attendance of 29 per cent of lower and 11.1 per cent only had attendance between 30-40 per cent.

Of those taking part, 36 per cent had a young person in KS3 and 26 per cent in KS4. A table from Square Peg and Not Fine In School, shows how moving through school year groups impacts on pupils in huge numbers by secondary school and through secondary school.

Image shows the number of respondents with children in each year group
Image: Square Peg & Not Fine In School submission of evidence to attendance consultation February 2022

Not Fine In School families said that the children they support also experienced sleep and eating difficulties as well as incidents of self-harm, distress, anger and anxiety each day in children as young as six years of age.

Attendance difficulties can be life-long for children as they grow. A total of 17 per cent of respondents said they had been struggling with attendance difficulties for more than a year, 23 per cent longer than 2 years, 15 per cent longer than 3 years, 9 per cent for longer than 4 years, 6 per cent for 5 years or more. Some 7 per cent of families have been dealing with the issue for between 6 and 9 years and 2 per cent have had the challenges for 10 years or longer.

When it came to support dealing with attendance barriers, almost 50 per cent had been offered a reduced timetable, 36 per cent were sent a formal attendance warning letter, 30 per cent were threatened with fines or prosecution and 10 per cent were referred to child protection.

Just 11 per cent of families had schools requesting and Education Health Care Needs Assessment for the child compared to 32 per cent of families self requesting. Only 19 per cent of those pupils received an Education Health Care Plan following the child or young person’s assessment.

Shockingly, more than 5 per cent of the children and young people involved had received a Fixed Term Exclusion and 2 per cent ended up permanently excluded from school.

A total of 5 per cent said their child was off-rolled into Alternative Provision (AP) and 4 per cent had their child deregistered from the school without their consent and with no AP in place.

Another worrying issue to arise was for the 8 per cent of parents and carers who were accused of fabricating or inducing illness in their child as a result of raising concerns with either the school or the Local Authority.

One family told the survey: “Only when threats of off rolling and prosecutions still didn’t make her well enough to attend school, they suggested a part time timetable by then it was too late, she had lost faith and trust in them.”

Another said: “Bounced for 7 years between Child protection to CIN and Early Help…back and forth. Ended up going from a selective grammar school straight to a residential SEN school at 16…but the damage had been done by then. She is destroyed.”

A total of 77 per cent of families said that they disagreed or strongly disagreed that their school’s response ‘helped’ improve their child’s attendance.

Ellie Costello concludes: “The Government’s reasoning is safeguarding but our families report neither they nor their child’s welfare, wellbeing and life chances have been safeguarded whatsoever. OFSTED refers to successful schools’ approaches to attendance as ‘tenacious.’ For families it is torturous.”

For more information about Team Square Peg, visit:

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