When Lara Jones’ daughter Dilly started to sob on a Sunday night about going to primary school in the morning, she hoped it was just a phase.
But it wasn’t.
By the time Dilly was a teenager and attending secondary school, she was desperately begging her mother not to send her in and often arriving at the school gates late and in a visibly distressed state.
‘It’s awful feeling like you literally have to try and drag your child somewhere, where they don’t want to be,’ remembers Lara.
However, Dilly’s fears weren’t borne from being a target for school bullies or because she hadn’t completed homework. She simply didn’t want to be at school – and she’s one of a growing number of children who find it hard or even impossible to attend a formal education setting.
Since the coronavirus lockdowns, persistent absenteeism is up 117%, equating to nearly a quarter of of all pupils in primary, secondary and special state schools – or 1,615,772 pupils.
But this is hardly a new phenomenon, as Ellie Costello, executive director of the social enterprise Squarepeg, explains.
The organisation advocates for children who struggle to attend school, working in partnership with the parent/carer led organisation Not Fine in School, which was set up in November 2018 to raise awareness of the barriers to school attendance and empower families impacted by them.
In just five years membership for Not Fine in School has grown to 43,000 people, whose children have found mainstream school attendance a struggle whether it’s down to unmet special education needs and disabilities, physical or mental illness, bullying and assault, or trauma.
Some have also cited excessive academic pressure, overly strict behaviour policies, an irrelevant curriculum and children missing sense of belonging.
‘No one wanted to talk about it, but then Covid legitimised the attendance conversation,’ Ellie explains.
‘There is a lot of disaffection bubbling away. An ever-increasing number of children and young people are developing high levels of anxiety – be it performance-related, socially, or because they can’t cope with the environment. Under this government, attainment and progress from the age of four onwards is monitored in a way that is excessive. It prioritises a certain type of learning. Quite simply, more and more kids just aren’t ticking that box.’
Recalling how one schoolgirl told her that walking through the school gates felt like wading through vicious, sharp ice, Ellie adds: ‘These aren’t snowflake kids, that’s a misconception. Young people now have so much more to cope with – from the threat of climate collapse to Instagram perfection – and they have to be so much more resilient.
‘We’ve never recovered from the cuts to education, which were announced in 2010 and implemented under austerity. We were sold the idea that if we just get tough on discipline, and establish high aspirations, everything else will follow. But you can’t have it both ways. You either want a child in the classroom and engaged in learning, or you will put them in isolation all day for wearing the wrong shoe laces.’
Dilly is now 14 and admits she has always struggled with attending school.
‘I’ve never liked it,’ she tells Metro.co.uk. ‘It’s about the system. When I have to go into school, I feel overwhelmed and stressed. I tend to catastrophise a lot.’
As someone who is autistic and dyslexic, Dilly is an ambassador for The Multi Schools Council which challenges perceptions of difference, and the negative stigma shown towards children with special educational needs and disability (SEND) and mental health difficulties.
‘Dilly struggled all the way through primary school, and now finds secondary school challenging as well,’ explains her mum, Lara. ‘She can get tearful and stressed the evening before school, and then in the morning as well. Often she’ll be late and will need a lot of reassurance from staff, who have often met her at the door. Even if she has a good day, she will be so exhausted by attending school that she is unable to do homework or enjoy social activities afterwards.
‘Recently, during exam week, she became so overwhelmed with the pressure that she couldn’t go in. But once she felt calmer at home, she was able to sit her maths test under timed conditions, unprompted by anyone. I was really surprised as maths is her least favourite subject and greatest challenge. It shows how genuine her struggle is.’
Lara adds that school staff are often very well meaning with children who might experience anxiety about coming to school, ‘but they don’t often fully understand what kind of consistent approach would be helpful,’ she says.
‘The problem is a lack of resources and training. Teaching staff do want to do the right thing, but there are lots of demands on them, and everyone within the whole school environment seems to be under a lot of pressure. It’s often children who are autistic, or neurodivergent, who can’t cope. Autistic children are so much more sensitive to noises, feelings, and the atmosphere. Everything is amplified for them.’
Child clinical psychologist Dr Selina Warlow runs The Nook Therapy clinic, in Farnham, Surrey, and regularly works with clients experiencing school avoidance, specifically those with Autism and ADHD.
‘Schools are certainly not to blame for school avoidance because sometimes it is not always clear what each child needs,’ she explains. ‘I have had many children with ASD explain how even changing the seating around in the classroom can be very stressful for them. School can then go from feeling predictable to feeling full of uncertainty, which can lead to anxiety. In addition, children with ASD can have difficulties with social interactions and having to walk into a class of 30 children everyday can feel very daunting.
‘For children with ADHD some of the challenges can be that they are expected to remain seated or maintain concentration throughout their lessons, but they may need to move or fidget. At times their hyperactivity, impulsivity and/or inattention can be misinterpreted as them being defiant or naughty, and this can begin to impact on a child’s self-esteem.’
Dr Warlow believes that despite schools being more adaptive, individualised support is still needed, ideally in collaboration with healthcare professionals.
‘Many of these children thrive at school,’ she adds. ‘They may think outside the box, be brilliant artists, sports men/women, or have a unique ability to hyperfocus on certain topics. The list of strengths is endless. These are the young people that I believe will change the world, with the right support and by nurturing their strengths.’
Dr Warlow adds that since covid it has been difficult to get some children back in the classroom, while at the start of the pandemic, Dr Gavin Morgan – an educational psychologist at University College London – warned the government that school closures would lead to mental health ramifications amongst children and young people.
‘It gave permission for some children not to attend school, because suddenly school seemed to be an option, and there was some kind of choice involved,’ he explains. ‘Especially for children who were already at risk of school avoidance, they just thought, I don’t have to go anymore.
‘For most kids, most of the time, school is the best place for them. But for some children, school is difficult, and it is anxiety-inducing. One size never fits all.’
Dr Morgan believes there are increasing reasons why school avoidance seems to be affecting more children.
‘We can’t separate children from families and wider society. They get impacted by parental pressures, and families are finding life hard at the moment due to the cost of living crisis. It’s just tough for everyone. There’s lots of increased pressures on kids,’ he says.
Of course, school closures were just one of many changes which children lived through during Covid-19.
After surveying more than 6000 parents in England, new research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and the UCL Institute of Education has found that almost half believe their child’s emotional development suffered as a result of the pandemic.
Children whose parents experienced job instability, compared to their pre-Covid employment situation, were more likely to be affected. However, Dr Morgan adds that the situation is increasingly tough for teaching staff too.
‘We expect a lot from teachers, more so than we have ever done before,’ he says. ‘Teachers aren’t just single subject teachers any more, they have a hugely complicated role nowadays.
‘Everything should start with the school providing support – and not punishment. There needs to be a whole school approach to talking about and dealing with these issues, and then targeted support for individual children and their families.’
This is something which Dilly has benefitted from, after moving to a school which was open to understanding her difficulties.
‘We can phone them in the morning, and say she’s having a hard day and struggling to come in, and they’re able to suggest ways to help, and we know we won’t get fined. It takes that pressure off,’ admits mum, Lara.
‘When she’s not able to come in, they’ve sent a test home for her, or they just accept the fact she will be a bit late that day… even so, on many days she still feels completely burnt out and can’t face going in.
‘Like all other parents, we want our child to achieve – we know she is capable and we want her to do her best. But there shouldn’t be a blanket response – the majority of families just need help and support, which is not there.’
Parentkind is a national charity which gives those with a parenting role a voice in education.
It believes mental health workers should be embedded within schools, and has allied itself to Citizen UK’s national campaign to ask policymakers to make this a reality.
‘Parental concerns over their child’s mental wellbeing remain high,’ Parentkind’s Chief Executive Jason Elsom tells Metro.co.uk.
‘Partial school closures and the cancellation of exams during the pandemic eased the pressure for some pupils, but the return to normality after major disruption to their lives has proved a set-back for many, and this is likely to be a driving factor behind high school absence rates.
‘Our Parent Voice Report revealed that parents of children eligible for free school meals or with special educational needs and disabilities were much likelier to report concerns over their child’s wellbeing, indicating that the issue is more pressing and serious for too many of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged young people.’
For some families, home education is a better option.
Munira Adenwalla, 48, believes children’s school avoidance is typically rooted in issues around a child’s mental health and emotional wellbeing – and has taken the decision to home educate her 11-year-old son Mohammed.
The mum of one noticed how he explored and learned best through movement, physical activity and hands-on experiences – and Mohammed now benefits from gymnastics, swimming, water sports, creative crafting, using technology, computer programming and meeting others in his community.
‘As parents, we wanted him to learn based on his own interests, pace, and through his own learning style,’ Munira explains. ‘This was not a difficult decision at all. I believe parents have a strong intuition or gut instinct of what is best for their child.
‘It’s a big myth that home educated kids miss out on socialisation. There are many groups and communities of home education families so our children get to mix. I love that my son can figure out how to play gently with toddlers, be looked up to by younger children as the fun older kid, play with same aged kids, learn from older children, and chat with their parents too.
‘The reality is home educated kids have a big variety of social opportunities and the choice for quiet or home days if they want or need it.’
Munira adds that she would love for teachers to get more training and support from professionals to understand and accommodate children whose brains are wired differently, and for schools to have all the resources they need to support all children in their own unique ways of learning.
‘By forcing kids to go back to school we are then giving them a message not to listen to their own bodies or minds when they feel uncomfortable, unsafe, or distressed,’ she warns. ‘That they just have to deal with all of this. This isn’t right.
‘Imagine if this was a job, would you call it ‘work refusal?’ You’d probably talk to your boss, try to work things out, and then quit if it didn’t go smoothly.
‘That’s just what school refusal is.’
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