Political scrutiny and policy development has focused on school attendance in recent years due to the drive to raise educational standards and academic achievement. This has created greater pressure on schools to monitor and improve their attendance levels, along with higher levels of anxiety in pupils.
To parents of school refusing children it quickly becomes apparent that the protection of school attendance figures, and related fear of Ofsted scrutiny of attendance records and procedures, has become a main priority in schools.
If a child can be marked as attending it does not seem to matter whether they are gaining any benefit from being in the school environment or not. Support for individual needs and protection of children’s mental health has become a lesser concern in comparison.
When a child is suffering with high levels of anxiety their school attendance reduces to a level that is deemed unacceptable by their school and local authority. This triggers the involvement of educational welfare officers or attendance officers and subsequent threats of fines, prosecution and school attendance orders. This suggests that absence due to mental health difficulties is being treated as truancy, we think this is cruel, unhelpful and unfair.
Shockingly, a new tactic is being reported when a parent explains a child’s absence is due to overwhelming anxiety; where head teachers are referring families to social services with accusations that parents are fabricating illness because schools refuse to accept anxiety as a reason for absence or as a SEND requiring school support.
This harsh approach is frustrating when you consider that there is no published evidence that parental legal sanctions are effective in getting young people into school, or that if they attended in an anxious state they would actually be able to achieve anything academically. Evidence also shows that more frequently prosecuting authorities have no have better attendance than those that use prosecution less often.
When a child’s school attendance is affected by a medical or health issue existing government guidance states that local authorities should make educational provision for children who are absent for more than 15 days where the absence is expected to continue. In practice however, the majority of families find that this guidance is ignored.
‘School refusal’ is a term commonly used to describe school attendance difficulties where children experience severe anxiety and distress in relation to attending school, often resulting in prolonged absences. Children experience a range of psychological and physical symptoms, and in severe cases suffer with depression, self-harm and sometimes attempt suicide. School refusal is acknowledged as a multi-dimensional, dynamic and diverse emotional reaction, meaning each case is individual and complex to resolve.
School refusal occurs when stress exceeds support, when risks are greater than resilience and when ‘pull’ factors that promote school non-attendance overcome the ‘push’ factors that encourage attendance. (Thambirajah et. al, 2008)
All over the UK, families are struggling with children and young people who are severely anxious about school. Their anxiety often relates to the constant academic pressure of current education assessment policies; a lack of effective provision for special educational needs; cultures of bullying and intimidation; or difficulties related to physical health issues – any of which create school cultures and environments that damage mental wellbeing.
Thousands of children are missing out on both an education, and treatment for their mental health difficulties. They become depressed, self-harm and sometimes suicidal, yet schools, local authorities and CAMHS ignore them.
Families are in crisis because they cannot access help, and as a consequence they are being fined, prosecuted and referred to social services for non-attendance at school.
What needs to change?
Enmeshed within family experiences are numerous emotional, behavioural, and attitudinal reactions expressed by people in different roles. These attitudes and reactions affect how school refusing children and their families are viewed, treated and supported.
Parents are reporting a widespread lack of recognition of mental health difficulties in schools, a lack of training, a lack of empathy, and a general unwillingness to admit that current practices are creating and exacerbating mental health problems. As a consequence children and parents are being blamed for these difficulties and denied support.
Alternative provision for children experiencing difficulties at school varies greatly at a local level. It is generally extremely difficult to access because schools and local authorities ignore relevant existing government guidelines. Equally, government has neglected to investigate these issues, or act, for far too long.
Current attendance policies create a situation where parents face intense daily pressure to force severely distressed child to attend school, or to provide the school with medical evidence demanded to authorise absence. This medical evidence is almost impossible to obtain quickly because families become stuck in an endless cycle of CAMHS waiting lists, rejections or inaction.
Schools are given little option to offer any flexibility or empathy because they fear OFSTED scrutiny and criticism. So, instead they force attendance, issue fines and refer parents for prosecution. This makes an extremely difficult situation much, much worse. Moreover, there is no evidence that legal action improves or resolves mental health related non-attendance (indicating the only benefit is protecting school data).
Trapped in this ‘no-mans-land’ of support, some families are even referred to Social Services under accusations of ‘educational neglect’ or even Fabricating or Inducing Illness. This seems to be a tactic used in growing regularity and reported by 20% of parents who completed our recent school refusal survey. This tactic is seemingly being used to deter families from demanding expensive SEND or alternative provision, or from highlighting the deficiencies within the education system.
Many families have children who are diagnosed or suspected of having learning needs and differences such as Autism, ADHD and Dyslexia. Parents often spend months, or years, struggling to navigate the SEND system to obtain any type of diagnosis or provision. A lack of training and funding cuts mean schools do not assess or provide for SEND, while Local Authorities do their utmost to delay or avoid assessing for EHCPs to save money.
Day after day, we hear from parents desperately worried that children are not coping with academic pressure relating to testing, exams and achievement expectations.
Frustratingly, there is little recognition of the need to address these underlying causes of mental health difficulties in schools.
It is important to consider that once children can access educational environments that do not place unreasonable academic demands and pressure on them; Provision that does recognise and support their individual needs, they often recover - given time, empathy and understanding. These features are often missing from current provision, and furthermore, there is absolutely no accountability when children are left unsupported - these are all factors where change is desperately needed.
The lack of clarity in understanding reasons for non-attendance begins with the differentiation between truancy and school refusal. A child who truants is absent without their parents knowledge, is generally unmotivated in regard to their education and the absence does not have an emotional basis.
Alternatively, a child who is school refusing does so with the involvement of their parents, has previously been achieving well academically and is concerned about their education, but is negatively affected by emotional difficulties' (Kearney, 2007; Thambirajah et al, 2008).
However, Mabey noted that it is too simplistic to label pupils as either 'truant' or 'school refuser', as absence can occur for a variety of complex reasons that could be relevant to either category (Thompson et al, 2012).
Thambirajah, et al, discuss statistics for school non-attendance and note ‘hidden somewhere in the statistics is a small but significant subgroup of school non-attenders variously called school phobics, school refusers and school avoiders’ (2008:13); they suggest this signifies a reluctance to acknowledge the issue in official record keeping.
Thambirajah, et al, also observe that the children are; ‘often misclassified as truants; the parents are blamed for their inability to get these children to attend school or they may masquerade as medically sanctioned absences’.
In addition they state; ‘this category of school non-attenders has been recognised by educationalist and health professionals for more than 75 years, yet they are ignored in official statistics and remain largely invisible’ (2008:13).
It could be said that this invisibility and lack of recognition helps to create the variations in approach, treatment and attitudes that parents encounter when seeking help for their child.
The British Psychological Society (2017) discussed persistent absence and noted that research indicates the use of parental fines and prosecution is usually unlikely to have any effect in cases of extended absence; their recommendations include:
Reduced dependence on the legal route and financial penalties – we all need to be reminded that punishment is an ineffective way of improving human behaviour and parent penalties such as fines should only be considered when probable effectiveness has been established, and alternative psychologically-informed solution-focused approaches have been exhausted.
Parent's accountability for a child's school refusal is discussed by Educational Welfare Officers, Sheppard (2001) and Ming (2004) in relation to the 'severe' punishments imposed by Government for non-attendance. Sheppard states;
The severity of this punishment is unique. If children or young people steal, set fire, injure others, or even commit murder...there is no prison sentence for the parents. Yet the parental role in affecting the onset of poor attendance or any of these other behaviours is the same.
Sheppard also notes that 'parental prosecutions for poor attendance in England increased between 2007 and 2009 by 27.6%...This is in spite of parental prosecution not being known to have any demonstrable effect on school attendance'. If we can accept that attendance is affected by mental ill-health is it fair or right to prosecute parents of children who are ill with anxiety disorders - that threat of a fine (or worse) is not going to make the child suddenly recover - their anxiety will not go away, in fact, it will probably make it worse!
Anne Sheppard asks whether legal sanctions can really be the answer to problems of truancy
This page provides information about the law on school attendance and the powers of the Local Authority in enforcing school attendance.
The International Network for School Attendance (INSA) promotes school attendance and responds to school attendance problems. Learn more about our mission, the origins of INSA, and our Steering Committee
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The Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education (CSIE) is a national charity that works to promote equality and eliminate discrimination in education. Founded in 1982, the Centre has been at the cutting edge of educational change for more than 35 years. In addition to producing a wide range of resources, CSIE provides training and consultancy nationally and internationally.
How Maslow's Famous Hierarchy Explains Human Motivation
This page provides information about when a child can be excluded and the obligations of the school to review an exclusion and the right to appeal an exclusion.
IPSEA's page on School Exclusion and pupils with SEND
CONTACT's page on School Exclusion
THE SCHOOL RUN's page about PRU's
Advice from IPSEA about the legal aspects of school exclusion