Jannine Perryman and Louise Parker Engels explore the issues surrounding school attendance difficulties and persistent absence.
The end of school holidays brings mixed feelings, whilst some welcome a return to school and work, others are bracing themselves for a return to their child‘s term time distressing mornings – refusal to get up, get dressed, to go to school, or explosive outbursts when they get home.
Perhaps they have a child who regularly attended primary school but school “refused” at secondary school, or a child who seems fine in school but has gradually reduced attendance over time, or a child who has been reluctant to attend, perhaps sometimes visibly distressed on arrival from the earliest stages of school, who doesn’t make it into school every day. All are at risk of being persistent absentees. an
These children may present with tummy aches, headaches, high levels of distress or anxiety, demand avoidance, oppositional defiance, emotional dysregulation, or sensory overload. A number of these children may also demonstrate a serious decline in mental health – with potentially tragic consequences.
Are they refusing to attend school or unable to attend?
Schools have clear, high expectations for attendance so persistent absence is a cause for concern, not only for the school and Ofsted, but for the child‘s educational outcomes. Parents report that in their experience the school response has been to focus on either attendance difficulties being due to parenting or family expectations, or on a child’s mental health as EBSA – emotionally based school avoidance – with any support available being tailored accordingly.
However recent government guidance on improving attendance(1) makes numerous references to “barriers to attendance”. This and other relevant guidance shifts some of the focus from parenting or child mental health, to looking at the bigger picture – encouraging schools and LA’s to understand why children are struggling to attend. This suggests they may not be choosing or refusing – rather, they can’t attend without the right support when they need it.
Barriers to attendance
It is difficult to say how many children are absent due to attendance barriers, but there are government statistics to demonstrate that children with additional needs are less likely to attend school regularly. Pupils with a SEN statement or education healthcare (EHC) plan had a persistent absence rate of 24.6% – more than twice the rate for pupils with no identified SEN (9.0%)(2).
We repeatedly see the connection between SEND needs and attendance such as these examples, which are sadly not unusual:
- ADHD, Dyslexia – diagnosed – well supported during primary school, high attainment SATS, rapidly reduced attendance on transfer to
secondary. Dyslexia and ADHD diagnoses disputed, placed in lowest sets, reduced access to scribe, reader and laptop.
- Autistic, year 1 sensory processing communication
and interaction difficulties. School did not agree with parents when they reported the signs he was masking but not coping, dysregulation at home. Turned down because school reports were different to parents, serious deterioration under CAMHs, remained on reduced timetable for years.
- Autistic child, often sitting under his desk in sensory overload but apparently fine. Sensitive to noise. Expected to join music lessons with his whole class playing brass instruments.
- Child with joint hypermobility, often physically unwell and in pain but primary school HT disputed pain and didn’t follow medical advice from consultant rheumatologist.
- Child bullied physically, struggling to respond to unexpected situations. Later diagnosed with slower processing, working memory problems and a significant language disorder.
- Young person with a serious health condition, staff not informed about diagnosis assumed his absence was due to his attitude. Thought he had left so didn’t submit coursework for moderation. Insufficient qualifications to stay on at sixth form.
In all of these cases parents were told at some point that their child was fine, despite them trying to highlight their child’s difficulties, with the focus being on the need for them to improve their child’s attendance rather than on working together to overcome the barriers.
A list of potential attendance barriers would be endless, and very much dependent on any number of other variables including levels of support available. These children may also be vulnerable to bullying.
No blame or shame for children, their parents or teachers
We have found that generally children will try to attend school if they can, and try until they can’t keep trying. They may feel shame or disappointment in themselves if they don’t. They may feel confused, angry, let down and even traumatised. They miss important experiences and opportunities.
Due to NHS wait times and thresholds for referrals, as well as reduced access to Educational Psychologists, many children are experiencing much later diagnoses, but some are just not receiving necessary reasonable adjustments even when they are.
Parents report feeling judged and blamed for their child’s attendance, including referrals for prosecution or to social services. Most have felt pressured to force their children into school and have regretted doing so. The effect of non- attendance can be very disruptive to family life, with at least one parent being unable to work. They often need support as they are often still unsure what to do which is why some of our work is focussed on peer support for parents, to give them the tools to work with professionals
None of us went into teaching planning to ignore the needs of children. Rather than blaming individuals this is a systemic problem affected by a lack of SEND Training for new teachers or for experienced teachers through CPD, perhaps a limited professional experience of attendance difficulties, and an ever changing, narrowing curriculum, the obvious constraints on time and resources can mean that children do not receive the earlier interventions they need. All too often they are not noticed until they have significantly deteriorated and are in crisis, and the placement may have broken down.
With this in mind the first course of action should not be blame, or shame, but working together to find solutions.
Working together to find solutions
Despite there being no specific government guidance for children experiencing SEND attendance barriers can be found in a number of relevant documents(3) on which we base our support.
From our experience of children who may be experiencing attendance barriers being described as fine when parents or other staff would say otherwise usually means they don’t get the help they really need when they need it. Their difficulties need to be acknowledged, understood and communicated to all members of staff working with them, with evidence based support plans. The earlier the better.
This article was written in response to an earlier one originally referring to serial school refusers where although some good points were raised, and a case study with a successful outcome was shared, we felt that it didn’t cover current understanding nor government guidance around barriers to attendance.
We appreciate this opportunity and the invitation to explore these issues in greater detail through this and subsequent articles. We hope to encourage a discussion around the evaluation of good practice and ensure parents, teachers and other professionals are more prepared to work together to find solutions to the often complex school attendance difficulties.