As a teacher and trainer in early years education, Kym Scott never imagined that she herself would one day have a child who would refuse to attend school. Scott’s daughter Libby, now 16, began struggling soon after starting at the local comprehensive secondary school.
“Attendance wasn’t a problem at primary school because I was happy – it felt like a second home. But secondary felt like a prison,” explains Libby, who struggled with long lessons, a lack of autonomy and strict rules about appearance and bringing the right equipment to class.
After a year, Libby moved to a different school and hoped for a fresh start but similar issues resurfaced and soon her attendance had dropped to 50 per cent. Getting to school became a huge ordeal – prompting anxiety, panic attacks and mental health problems. “It wasn’t a choice. I’d have done anything to go but no matter how hard I tried to pluck up the willpower, I couldn’t,” she says.
“As a parent, if your child isn’t attending school, you feel like an utter failure,” says Scott. “I tried everything – being supportive, getting angry, bribing… but what I learnt is that if you’ve got a child that’s really anxious or traumatised, reasoning with them or physically dragging them out of bed isn’t going to make a difference.”
At the age of 10, Libby had been diagnosed with ADHD and autistic spectrum disorder. When the pandemic hit, she was in Year 7 and being away from the pressures of school meant her mental health improved. “When school restarted, she really struggled with going back,” says Scott. That is when the search for an alternative began.
Libby is far from alone. In 2023, 140,000 children were classed as “severely absent” from school – meaning they missed at least 50 per cent of their lessons – an increase of 134 per cent since the pandemic. Now, the Department for Education has announced a major new drive to get so-called “ghost children” like Libby back into school, with the announcement of more “attendance hubs” and more attendance mentors, who will offer tailored support to 10,000 struggling families.
For the past year, Alex Tinkler has led a team of Barnardo’s attendance mentors in Middlesbrough, where his job is to try and get to the root of what is keeping individual children out of the classroom.
The value of education
Often, the relationship between the school and the family has broken down – especially if the parents have been fined for non-attendance – and Tinkler’s job is to act as a mediator. Some days he has to convince parents of the value of education, particularly when there’s been generational non-attendance.
Tinkler explains: “In the vast majority of cases, there is a will to go but there are barriers. It can be as simple as getting a child the right pair of shoes. In some schools, you’ll get sent home for turning up in trainers but perhaps the family can’t afford another pair of shoes, and the school hasn’t dug deeper to find that out.
“With most young people who are missing out on education, it’s not for want of trying. It’s usually because they’re struggling, often with undiagnosed special educational needs.
“There are some young people who don’t like going – they know they can act a certain way and it will get them sent home and they can be at home playing on their Xbox. There is truth to that but it’s imperative those children also get support because if they don’t go to school, they have a risk of going NEET [not in education, employment or training], which could then roll into county lines problems, crime, and a cost to society as a whole in terms of courts, jail etc. That’s the extreme side of it but that’s why the youth is the most important part of any society, and why it’s so important to get in there early.”
So when did attendance become such an issue in the UK? Tom Bennett, a former teacher and independent behaviour advisor to the Department for Education, attributes the nosedive to the pandemic, which saw some parents adopt the belief that school is somehow optional.
Before then, he says, attendance was only a problem for “a core percentage of families”.
“The pandemic shattered the social contract,” says Bennett. “For as long as anyone can remember, the assumption was that you should send your children to school.
“Then all of a sudden it was compulsory to stay at home, and that meant children and families learnt entirely new habits, and human behaviour is very habit driven. It’s an international phenomenon – not local to the UK.”
While there is little doubt that going to school leads to better educational outcomes for children, opinions are split on whether the Department for Education’s laser focus on attendance is a good thing.
Warning signs in schools
Dr Naomi Fisher is an educational psychologist who works closely with families struggling with school avoidance and refusal. She sees the attendance problem as something that predates the pandemic, and as a sign that something is going wrong at a much deeper, systemic level in our schools.
“Post-pandemic, schools seem to have become a lot more pressured and more controlling. I hear lots of stories from children about how controlling their school environment is and how much distress that causes them. I hear stories of children having to go to isolation because they got three points in one day, and one of them was for their clip-on tie falling off. When you put children in highly controlled environments, they know they can’t show their distress but the parents see it at home – and then they’re blamed when the child starts saying, ‘I feel really awful in school’.”
This chimes with Scott’s experience, which has left her feeling that young people like Libby – neurodivergent learners and more anxious children – are almost like “collateral damage” under the current system.
Libby, however, is an exceptionally smart teenager, who has written four best-selling books about autism, and yet no school was able to meet her needs. This led to hospital education and a spell in a pupil referral unit where there were often high levels of violence and aggression. Eventually the family moved from London to Gloucestershire so that Libby could enrol at Wotton House, a small private independent school, where she now learns via Zoom on four days and attends one day a week in person.
“It’s a completely different environment,” says Libby. “The teachers give you freedom and respect. You never have to ask to go to the toilet, there is never any shouting.”
But Scott is acutely aware that for most families, moving halfway across the country and paying privately or fighting for funding as she did isn’t an option. Instead, many end up stuck in limbo, with children at home and parents battling for support in an over-subscribed system, all the while knowing that any kind of formal qualifications are slipping further out of reach.
It’s a scenario that Fisher encounters day in, day out.
“I’m often contacted by parents who say: ‘Can you treat my child’s anxiety? He isn’t going to school.’ And I have to explain, no, because it isn’t a mental health problem, it’s a reasonable response to the circumstances. If a school is effectively using anxiety to motivate children, then it’s not surprising that some of them will say they’re too anxious to attend.
“At the same time, they’re often being told very clearly that if you don’t attend school, you will never be a success, so this puts young people in an impossible situation of feeling really unhappy at school, while being told that if they don’t go, they won’t have a future. I’m not surprised that it causes enormous distress and despair. We should be asking: do we need to think about making our schools less punitive, less pressured? Are our schools child-friendly places?”
Bennett disputes the idea that strict behaviour policies are fuelling some children’s anxiety and absenteeism as “nonsense”. On the contrary, he says they do the opposite.
“Every child is entitled to a safe, secure, calm learning environment – it doesn’t lead to more anxiety, it leads to less. It comes down to clear boundaries – lots of love but also lots of consequences for misbehaviour. If a school didn’t mind if a student didn’t turn up, that wouldn’t be compassionate – that would be neglectful, mean and cruel because you’d be teaching somebody that it’s OK to do as you please, and that’s not how the world works.”
Where Fisher argues that attendance-reward systems mean disadvantaged pupils only feel further stigmatised, missing out on trips and perks because they haven’t managed 100 per cent attendance, Bennett says there is nothing wrong with making it clear that attendance matters. “By caring about a child’s attendance, that’s one of the main ways of showing that child that we care,” he says.
With such contrasting views on what needs to happen to address attendance, one thing both sides agree on is the need for more alternative provision for those children who are struggling to fit into mainstream schools.
Finally finding a school that feels safe and accepting means that Libby is now on track to sit two GCSEs this spring, and her plan is to study music at college.
“She’s taken a different path and that can be hard – when you see kids in their uniforms in September and when all the exam results come out, it gets you,” says Scott. “It’s sad that the state system hasn’t worked for us, especially when I’ve worked with it all my life. But she’s done so well to keep going. She’s got lots of interests and lots of options, and she has the desire to do well, which I feel really proud of.”