After councils England cited a shortfall in mental health support as a factor in reduced attendance, parents describe their struggles.
About 18 months ago, Jane’s 13-year-old daughter Anna* was referred to child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) after her GP said she was exhibiting clear symptoms of stress and anxiety. But as another school year draws to a close, Anna still hasn’t been told when she may be offered treatment.
Her attendance this year has sunk below the 90% threshold at which absence is classed as persistent. Often on a Monday morning, Jane says, her daughter claims to have a headache, and when told she has to go in throws “the most incredible tantrums”.
Jane is one of hundreds of parents who told the Guardian about the issues keeping their children off school, as local authorities in England cite increased anxiety and a shortfall in mental health support as factors behind stubbornly high absence levels post-pandemic.
It wasn’t always like this for Anna. She was “always really eager” to go to her primary school, says Jane, a communications manager in London. But she didn’t cope well with lockdown, which came into force when she was in year 5.
“There was lots of resistance to do school life at home,” Jane says of her child, who is now in year 8.“She was always quite strong-willed but it went through the roof during the pandemic. She couldn’t meet friends, had no social interaction. It was really tough for her. I think she forgot how to be with other kids.”
Jane believes the lockdowns “made missing school permissible for many kids. They were forced to spend so much time at home when they should have been socialising … Many don’t want to leave the security and safety home offers.”
While Anna does well academically, Jane worries that continuing absence will affect her education. “I think if she could talk to a third party about how she can find ways of managing what she feels, that would really help make her feel heard.”
Pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (Send) are among those with reduced attendance levels: in England, 30.6% of pupils who receive Send support were persistently absent in autumn 2021, compared with 21.5% of pupils who do not.
Jo, a hairdresser from York, says that with her nine-year-old son Alex*, who has a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder and dyslexia, school attendance has become “very unpredictable” over the last two years.
Alex has always struggled with school. “His safe space is at home – he struggled in mainstream because there were so many kids in class. From year 2 he would have to be dragged into classroom. I thought I was doing right thing, but looking back I think it was the worst thing I could have done.”
Pupils with Send who had education, health and care plans were among those permitted to attend school during national lockdowns. Although Alex didn’t have one in place at the time, Jo pushed for the school to allow him to come in during the second lockdown and Alex fared better then due to reduced class sizes.
“When it went back to normal, things went rapidly downhill,” Jo says. Alex was having “daily meltdowns” after he returned to a class of typical pupil numbers.
Alex’s attendance fell below 70% in year 4 and Jo withdrew him from the mainstream school in May 2022. “I couldn’t get him through the door and was constantly having to pick him up – it was a complete nightmare,” she says. The disruption meant she had to leave a job she loved as a functional skills tutor last December, which she had been doing alongside hairdressing.
After almost a year at an offsite provision of a pupil referral unit on a reduced timetable, Alex will be moving to a specialist school about 30 miles away in September.
Jo is now fighting to get transport funded. “What about those who don’t know how to fight the system or don’t have suitable schools in a close radius? It’s a full-time job to have a child with special needs and fight to get them the education that they deserve,” she says.
The rising cost of living and its impact on families is another factor behind school absences, according to the charity School-Home Support, which also reports that poor housing is increasingly a barrier.
While some parents who contacted the Guardian mentioned that awareness of rising costs was causing their child stress, others spoke of the struggle to afford transport. Caroline, from West Yorkshire, says she has had to cut back on the quality of food she buys and on heating in order to drive her son Tom*, who has a physical disability, to school.
Caroline, who is unable to work due to disability, says that while she has been able to prioritise Tom’s transport, she knows of others locally who are unable to afford the bus fare.
Caroline emphasises the structural issues behind school absence figures. “Politicians are acting as if the parents are at home going ‘yeah, love, whatever, just play on your Xbox’. That’s not it at all. There’s all sorts of problems going on in the background – the lack of investment in children’s services and in making accommodations for children so that they can attend school.”
As well as exacerbating mental health difficulties, another impact of the pandemic has been on physical health. Many parents said increased illness was driving up school absences, with some citing long Covid while others mention their child appearing more susceptible to sickness.
Helen, an engineer in Devon, says that since contracting Covid for the second time in February 2022, her daughter Lily*, who has asthma, has been unwell more frequently.
After being ill for three weeks with Covid, she has been sick every few months, Helen says. “Since then, any time she is ill she is in bed for about a week – her immune system is really low at the moment. Most recently she was off school for two weeks with flu and bronchitis.”
Helen says the school is sending her letters about Lily’s attendance. She has started keeping copies of prescriptions as evidence of her daughter’s illness. Helen took Lily, who is 13, to the GP and a checkup found no underlying health issues. “He said he sees loads of kids that are always sick now,” she says.
Lily’s attendance has fallen below the 90% threshold. “This wasn’t happening before Covid or at primary school. It’s worrying and makes life stressful for all involved,” Helen says. “I’m worried if it continues she’ll miss vital lessons in the GCSE years.”
* Some names have been changed.News