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Pandemic school absence stats raise child mental health questions

16 July 2021

Last week’s Department for Education figures show 1.5 million children were off school, raising concerns about high numbers of children refusing school for mental health reasons.

About 840,000 pupils were off for Covid-related reasons and a further 630,000 were absent for other reasons. That is a quarter of secondary pupils and 15% of primary pupils in total.

The number of pupils absent from school has been growing rapidly over the past few weeks.

Kevin Courtney, joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, told the Commons Education Select Committee that some of the pupils absent for non-Covid reasons would be suffering from mental health issues while others might be avoiding school because of fear of failure after a year of disruption.

DR UK’s Head of Policy Fazilet Hadi said: “It has taken a pandemic for government to sit up and notice that there is a major problem with school attendance. Just over half these figures relate to Covid isolation protocols, but what about the other half?

“We know that there are around 770,000 persistent school refusers, many of whom will have made up last week’s figures.

“We also know that secondary school pupils are causing short term isolation periods by faking lateral flow tests with fruit juice, again to become school avoiders and refusers. For many, this isn’t joking around, it’s a desperate measure to avoid an environment which causes them active harm.

“We know that children kept off school by parents as sick, with genuine concerns for their children’s mental health, are frequently marked by schools as absent without permission – a state of affairs which can land parents in court and fined.

“Childhood poor mental health is often caused or exacerbated by a tickbox culture around SEND in schools which lack truly supportive environments with reasonable adjustments for ways of being such as autism, ADHD and other non-neurotypicality.

“Without a sea change in school culture, half of those absentees will continue to be failed. The government is talking about building back better for many areas of life in the UK. It’s time it started talking about building up better for children in schools with SEND.”