Mental health is main cause of rising absences in England, say headteachers

<span>DfE figures showed a 150% increase in the number of children classified as severely absent in 2022-23, compared with before the pandemic.</span><span>Photograph: Martin Argles/The Guardian</span>
DfE figures showed a 150% increase in the number of children classified as severely absent in 2022-23, compared with before the pandemic.Photograph: Martin Argles/The Guardian

Children’s mental health and anxiety are the biggest drivers behind the sustained rise in school absences since the Covid pandemic, according to headteachers who said the government’s plan to raise fines for parents in England would make no difference.

Nearly nine out of 10 secondary school leaders – including attendance officers tasked with tackling absences – said there had been a marked increase in pupils missing school over the past two years because of mental health issues.

Lorraine Yates, an assistant principal at the Astrea Academy Trust chain of schools in Yorkshire and Cambridgeshire, said children in years 9 and 10 faced the biggest challenges, “as they are the cohort of young people that was most disrupted by Covid and that were impacted by Sure Start centres and children’s centres being closed”.

“Throughout their childhood up to the end of their statutory school age, they’ve missed out on quite a bit. From what we’re seeing in our academies, it has had an impact,” she said.

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Elaine Harper, of the Leigh Academies Trust, which manages 31 schools in Kent, said: “There are far more absences related to mental health than anything else, like term-time holidays and the other typical causes of absences.

“Of course, over the last 18 months we have seen that the economic situation has compounded the absence problem.”

Last year, the Department for Education (DfE) classed 150,000 children at state schools in England as severely absent – missing more than half their sessions – 150% higher than the 60,000 who were severely absent in 2018-19, before the pandemic.

The findings in research shown to the Guardian by Bromcom, a management information system provider for schools, shows that schools are adapting to the surge in mental health concerns, with some rebranding the traditional medical or sickroom as an “attendance support room”, to help pupils back into lessons rather than sending them home.

Using data from attendance software, some schools are monitoring which lessons and subjects cause particular pupils to feel uneasy, so staff can anticipate and encourage them back to class.

The feedback from 500 schools found that parents had become “unduly cautious” in keeping their children off school, with some away for entire weeks instead of one or two days.

“Schools recognise that there will be genuine cases of pupils with anxiety, but they are not qualified to tell if it’s genuine,” the report noted.

“A parent asking for a GP appointment may get a telephone discussion if they are lucky; overstretched GPs themselves may then find it more expedient to offer a diagnosis of anxiety. Where parents struggle to get an appointment, they often simply keep their child off school.”

Janice Bowling, of the Greenshaw Learning Trust, a multi-academy trust with 30 schools in southern England, said there had also been an increase in parents willing to take term-time holidays: “Following Covid, the strong partnership between home and school has deteriorated significantly.

“[Parents] will quite happily add four days on to a bank holiday and know that they’re not going to get fined … Parents are honest now and many will openly admit they are willing to take the fight or put up with fines.”

However, more than three-quarters of school leaders said the DfE’s plan to raise fines on parents for taking their child out of school – by £20 to £80 – was unlikely to have any impact. “Coupled with the financial hardships families are facing, the fine is trivial in comparison to potential savings during lesspopular holiday time,” the report said.