CYPMHC and Centre for Mental Health urges government to see the link between school absences and mental health

The Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition (CYPMHC) and the Centre for Mental Health have called for a new approach to tackle absenteeism in schools by supporting children’s mental health.

Currently, one in five children are persistently absent from school, which means they are missing 10% or more of school time. In 2022-2023, 150,000 children were severely absent, meaning they were missing over 50% of possible sessions.

CYPMHC and the Centre for Mental Health said in their new report, that while mental health has a huge impact on children and young people, with one in five children and young people aged 8 to 25 experiencing a mental health problem in 2023, it is not always adequately considered in the attendance debate. Their new report shows the links between attendance and mental health, and the wider barriers to school attendance.

School attendance and rising levels of mental health problems have risen in close relationship.

The data suggests a link between school absence rates and mental health problems; in Autumn 2022, children with a mental health problem were seven times more likely to have missed 15 days of school than those without a mental health problem.

Alongside rising levels of mental health problems, waiting times for support have been at an all-time high, resulting in young people finding it increasingly challenging to access the support they need. As a result, many face barriers to school attendance due to unmet and unsupported needs.

CYPMHC and the Centre for Mental Health said a range of wider barriers to children and young people attending school are often ignored. This includes barriers experienced by children with mental health problems, children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), those living in poverty, those experience bullying or racism, young carers and care experienced children.

One example by the Centre for Young Lives found that 57% of persistently absent pupils were eligible for free school meals, and children growing up in poverty were three times more likely to miss school.

The government has introduced a range of initiatives to tackle the attendance crisis, including attendance mentors and new attendance hubs.

While CYPMHC and the Centre for Mental Health said these initiatives have the potential to bring about change, their success will be limited by not addressing the wider determinants of school absenteeism. As a result, they said said the government is likely to fall short in supporting children and young people to get back into school.

To address the barriers to children attending school and ensuring they get the support they need both inside and outside the school gates, CYPMHC and the Centre for Mental Health have made the following suggestions for a new approach:

  • Introducing a mental health code of absence to record absence for pupils with mental health problems
  • Improving the availability of mental health support through embedding and resourcing a whole education approach and funding the full national roll out of mental health support teams
  • Addressing the drivers of school absenteeism by taking action to address the social determinants such as poverty, racism, and discrimination to support children and young people to attend school

Responding to the report, Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “School is the best place for children, and schools work extremely hard to support pupils who find full time attendance difficult.

“However, we hear from school leaders how attendance is being impacted by the difficulties families face when trying to access support from community services like mental health and social care, and this can be particularly challenging for families with children who have special educational needs.

“Government funding for these services simply hasn’t kept pace with demand, meaning less capacity, long waiting lists and higher thresholds for support. Without access to timely help, children’s needs can spiral and the effect on their attendance and engagement in learning can be significant.

“Fines for parents have proved to be a blunt and ineffective instrument in tackling non-attendance. If ministers are serious about addressing the root causes of persistent absence they must invest properly in essential support services so these services can help families with issues in their lives – including funding local authorities to restore key roles like education welfare officers which have fallen victim to government austerity.”

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