Warning over ‘grossly inadequate’ mental health support for schools that could make high absence levels ‘the new norm’

Posted: 4th October 2023

Mental health support for children struggling to attend school is “grossly inadequate”, a report by a committee of cross-party MPs has said.

The number of children absent from school has more than doubled since the pandemic and a report by the Education Select Committee says ministers are not acting fast enough to get numbers down.

A “major cross-government review on how to overcome this challenge” is needed, the committee chair has said.

The children are asked to write about how they are feeling
Image:The children are asked to write about how they are feeling

One senior teacher has told Sky News she fears high levels of absence could become the “new norm” – inflicting long-term damage on thousands of children.

The latest figures show that in 2021/2022 more than 1.7 million children were persistently absent, meaning they missed 10% or more of school.

Around 125,000 spent more time out of class than in, according to Department for Education figures.

The report is critical of the government’s approach, saying there has been “no significant improvement in the speed and scale” of reducing absence rates.

One of the authors’ biggest concerns is the rising rates of children struggling with their mental health.

Education Committee chair Robin Walker MP told Sky News: “It’s clear that since the pandemic there have been a growing number of children citing mental health reasons for being out of school.

Lucy Frazer pressed on the new figures showing the number of children absent from school since the pandemic..

“This is deeply troubling and it is evident that our health service can’t meet this growing demand, leaving schools to fill the gaps.

“A major cross-government review of how to overcome this challenge is needed and greater resources both inside and outside schools will be required.”

‘I just felt useless’

In Cumbria, teaching staff at Furness Academy in Barrow-in-Furness have been trying to reduce their absence rates by holding specialist mental health sessions with children struggling with school.

Sky News was given access to one of the sessions as students spoke openly about these struggles.

Josh, 13, said: “I felt like I was just one of the non-smart kids in school. I just felt useless.”

Josh is one of Furness Acadamy's students
Image:Josh said he ‘felt useless’
Image:Teddy is six years old and staying in a homeless hostel

And another 13-year-old, Brooke, who has struggled with attendance, said: “I missed out a lot on the lessons. So I fell behind. I would just refuse to come in. I’d feel sick with anxiety in the morning before coming to school.”

John, also 13, said the sessions “have helped me improve my confidence. Maybe in the future I’ll be able to speak more instead of trying to hide myself away.”

The pilot scheme, funded by the government and run in conjunction with Westmorland and Furness Council, Furness Academy and the charity Family Action, has improved attendance for all of the children. But sessions like these are rare.

Diane McSharry, education officer at Westmorland and Furness Council, said the authority was under “huge pressure” to tackle low attendance.

“We have to come up with ways to support children and families to get over whatever the barrier is. It’s a constant battle but you have to think outside the box,” she said.

Source – Warning over ‘grossly inadequate’ mental health support for schools that could make high absence levels ‘the new norm’ | UK News | Sky News

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