In recent years, a growing number of children are facing difficulties attending traditional educational settings, raising concerns among parents, educators, and mental health professionals. This phenomenon, characterized by persistent school absenteeism, has seen a significant uptick, particularly since the COVID-19 lockdowns. While some attribute it to various factors, the impact on affected children’s mental well-being cannot be ignored.
Persistent Absenteeism on the Rise
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns, persistent absenteeism among students has surged by a staggering 117%. This alarming trend translates to nearly a quarter of all pupils in primary, secondary, and special state schools, amounting to 1,615,772 students nationwide. This surge has raised concerns and prompted discussions about the underlying causes and potential solutions.
Unveiling the Root Causes
Ellie Costello, the Executive Director of Squarepeg, a social enterprise advocating for children struggling with school attendance, sheds light on the issue. Squarepeg collaborates with the parent-led organization “Not Fine in School,” established in 2018 to raise awareness and empower families grappling with barriers to school attendance.
In just five years, Not Fine in School’s membership has grown to an impressive 43,000 individuals. These families share a common struggle with mainstream school attendance, stemming from various reasons, including unmet special education needs, disabilities, physical or mental illnesses, bullying, trauma, and excessive academic pressure. Some even cite rigid behavior policies, irrelevant curricula, and a lack of a sense of belonging.
COVID-19 and the Legitimization of Attendance Conversations
Ellie Costello emphasizes the role of the COVID-19 pandemic in legitimizing discussions around school attendance. The pandemic exposed the increasing disaffection among children and young people, leading to high levels of anxiety, whether performance-related, social, or due to environmental factors. The relentless monitoring of student progress and attainment from an early age has left many children feeling disconnected from the conventional learning experience.
Children’s Resilience Amidst Challenges
Contrary to misconceptions, these children facing school avoidance are not “snowflakes.” Modern youth grapple with an array of challenges, from concerns about climate change to the pressures of maintaining an Instagram-perfect image. They must cultivate higher levels of resilience.
The Impact of Austerity and Cuts to Education
The impact of austerity measures implemented after 2010 has also left a lasting impression on the education system. In pursuit of discipline and high aspirations, schools have adopted more rigid approaches. Still, the reality is that children have diverse learning needs, and a one-size-fits-all approach is proving ineffective.
Individual Struggles: Dilly’s Story
Dilly, a 14-year-old student, shares her personal struggle with school attendance. She emphasizes her challenges with the education system, feeling overwhelmed and stressed whenever she has to attend school. Dilly, who is autistic and dyslexic, serves as an ambassador for The Multi Schools Council, advocating for children with special educational needs and disabilities.
Challenges in Understanding
Dilly’s mother, Lara, highlights the challenges school staff face in understanding and effectively addressing anxiety-related attendance issues. A lack of resources and training hinders their ability to provide comprehensive support, particularly for neurodivergent children who are more sensitive to their surroundings.
Expert Insights: Addressing School Avoidance
Child clinical psychologist Dr. Selina Warlow suggests that schools are not to blame for school avoidance. Individualized support, ideally in collaboration with healthcare professionals, is essential. Different children thrive in different environments, and schools must adapt to cater to their unique strengths.
Impact of COVID-19 on Attendance
The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced a unique set of challenges. Dr. Gavin Morgan, an educational psychologist at University College London, warned that school closures would have mental health ramifications for children. School closures offered some children an alternative, and for those already at risk of school avoidance, it provided an escape from the conventional school environment.
Growing Pressures on Children
Dr. Morgan highlights the increasing pressures on children, often influenced by family dynamics and societal stressors. The cost of living crisis and parental pressures further exacerbate the challenges faced by children.
A Call for Holistic Solutions
As per Parentkind, a national charity advocating for parental involvement in education, the emotional well-being of children remains a paramount concern. They emphasize the need to embed mental health workers within schools and address the pressing issue of high school absence rates, particularly among vulnerable and disadvantaged students.
The Alternative: Home Education
For some families, home education offers a viable alternative. Munira Adenwalla, a parent who homeschools her 11-year-old son Mohammed, believes that many children’s school avoidance roots in their mental health and emotional well-being. Home education allows children to learn at their own pace and in a way that suits their interests and learning styles.
Advocating for Support and Understanding
Munira emphasizes the importance of teachers receiving more training and support to accommodate children with different needs. She calls for schools to have the necessary resources to support children in their unique ways of learning and underscores the significance of listening to children when they express discomfort about attending school.
The increasing trend of school absenteeism among children demands careful consideration and proactive measures. It is essential to create a learning environment that caters to the diverse needs of students while prioritizing their mental well-being. As discussions continue, it is crucial to find a balance that ensures every child receives a quality education while addressing their individual challenges.