School Attendance Difficulties and Barriers Affecting School Attendance
By Louise Engels | February 17th, 2021
Parents are responsible to ensure that their children receive a full-time education, either through Home Education or by sending them to school. Those who choose the school option are then legally required to ensure they attend regularly -which has recently been challenged and legally interpreted as on-time, every day.
“Central to raising standards in education and ensuring all pupils can fulfil their potential is an assumption so widely understood that it is insufficiently stated – pupils need to attend school regularly to benefit from their education. Missing out on lessons leaves children vulnerable to falling behind. Children with poor attendance tend to achieve less in both primary and secondary school. The government expects schools and local authorities to:
Promote good attendance and reduce absence, including persistent absence; Ensure every pupil has access to full-time education to which they are entitled; and, act early to address patterns of absence.
Parents to perform their legal duty by ensuring their children of compulsory school age who are registered at school attend regularly.
All pupils to be punctual to their lessons”. Department for Education, 2016.
That sounds reasonable doesn’t it?
It seems fair that parents who have chosen to send their children to school for their education must ensure their children actually attend regularly, which is the case for the majority of children on roll at schools across Britain. There has been is some disagreement over the definition of regularly, but generally it means that pupils should attend school on time, every day and follow their school curriculums. This can then leave parents with the dilemma of having to decide between the needs of their children and whole family, which might include some term time holidays, or other days off for personal and family events, and the risk of potential attendance prosecution.
However, an increasing number of children are struggling to attend regularly, some struggle to attend at all. These children and young people are sometimes referred to as school refusers, or school phobic. They are experiencing attendance difficulties, or barriers to attendance. Many want to attend school, but for a variety of reasons they just can’t. Unfortunately, many of these difficulties are not recognised or acknowledged, especially in the earlier stages and are regularly described as being “fine in school”. Some may mask their difficulties until they get home, others may experience school avoidance, or be unable to attend at all. We feel it is vital that “fine in school” is defined. We need to understand what school professionals mean by “fine”, and how that fits with family experiences. How do we define fine? For us we would expect children who are “fine” to be healthy, happy, and able to learn and thrive, to achieve their potential.
It is difficult to count exactly how children are struggling to attend school as there is no official attendance code for being unable to attend. Some are authorised as being ill, others are unauthorised. Some parents feel they have no choice but to remove their children from the school rolls, either for their child’s welfare or to overcome legal issues surrounding attendance and are now choosing to home educate them instead.
A Facebook group “School Refusal Support Services for Phobia, Refusal & Separation Anxiety” Facebook group has 9000 members, the Not Fine in School group we co-founded has 15 000 members and plus most SEND and mental health support groups support parents with school attendance difficulties. Our new group Define Fine: Parent Peer Support for School Attendance Difficulties is growing each week.
So, with the government seeing the importance of educating children, and parents and children wanting to attend school what help is there? Surprisingly there is not much.
Help ranges from denial of problems, to mental health referrals, LEA medical needs tuition , to a whole variety of interventions, the most serious of which can result in attendance prosecution and/or social services interventions. In short there is no national approach to supporting these children and their families, and so the support and the successful return to education varies from school to school, and across counties, and countries.
One thing is certain though, there is a growing number of children who are not able to access education and therefore at risk of not achieving their potential. Added to that many children are very distressed, to the point of being very unwell, with the rest of their families also being affected in one way or another.
What causes children to be struggling or “not fine in school”?
There are many reasons for not being able to attend school. These children are not refusing school simply as a result of poor parenting, or bad behaviour. It is not that they don’t want to attend, instead for a variety of reasons they can’t attend. A common theme does seem to be emerging through parents who use social media groups to discuss their experiences and support one another, that the majority of these children have underling health or emotional conditions and/or special educational needs which are not being acknowledged or adequately supported by schools.
Unfortunately, the children who are not actually fine in school, and their parents receive conflicting advice, which can often do more harm than good, and add to their difficulties at the time when they are in need of support.
As “Define Fine: Parent Peer Support for School Attendance Difficulties ” we are dedicated to working with parents and professionals to ensure that all children are supported with the variety of difficulties they face, to allow them to access a suitable education . School attendance difficulties are linked to the following factors, either on their own or in combination, often due to the lack of a suitable plan to acknowledge assess and a suitable plan to support these:
• *Unmet Special Educational Needs and Disabilites, in part due to support, training, and resources in school.
• Autism and/or ADHD, and other neurodivergence, Pathological Demand Avoidance, Avoidance due to Oppositional Defiance or Rejection sensitivity
• Communication and interaction difficulties
• Sensory processing difficulties or sensory overload
• Mental Health Difficulties : Including Anxiety, Phobias, Depression, eating disorders, self harm
• Social phobia, separation anxiety, or fear of leaving security to family and/or home
• Dyslexia, executive functioning, working memory and processing difficulties.
• Sleep onset disorders
• Health conditions – physical and mental health exacerbated by NHS referral thresholds, and long waiting times for both mental and physical health appointments for diagnoses and treatment
• Invisible illness or rare diseases
• Chronic Fatigue Syndrome /ME
• Difficulty with transitions, primary to secondary or to a new school
• Trauma – ACES also including PTSD and school trauma-
• Difficult Family relationships or living conditions
• Illness or death of family member,
• Parents relationship break down
• Bullying by other pupils or even teachers
• Bad experiences at previous schools.
• The organisation of the school – environmental, or timetabling the curriculum. .
• Insufficient pastoral care support
• Not feeling safe at school.
• Friendship difficulties
• Unsympathetic uniform policies not supporting sensory and racial differences
• Stress possibly affecting health in other ways such as resulting reduced immunity to childhood illnesses
• Academic Pressures including testing and assessment
• The current Educational System, - politically led, nor child or teacher led. Square pegs!
The reasons for School refusal/ attendance difficulties are complex, with links to health, educational, social and family factors. Unfortunately there are diminishing health and educational resources available. Add to that a climate where schools are measured by performance targets as they struggle to deliver a narrowing exam based curriculum. Some LA’s don’t acknowledge their difficulties, that these children don’t fit the criteria for top up funding or ECHPs and many schools are at a loss to provide the support they need. For some schools they may not have experience of these situations which then delays the suoprt they are able to offer.
So what is offered to support these children, and their families who are often unprepared for the disruption to family life, work and other family commitments, and the sheer exhaustion of supporting children unable to attend school? Remember these are not children who are choosing their responses. These are desperate children who are often in a very distressed state, and many demonstrate their distress in ways that would have to be experienced to be believed,
The majority of these children and families need help. Most ask for help, but unfortunately help is a long time coming, if it ever comes, and by then our children have been out of school so long that their education has been severely disrupted and their health and wellbeing has deteriorated even further. and quite when you finally get to meet the professionals they are sometimes as puzzled as we are about how to offer support and treatment, and eventually discharge them.
Some are offered short term support at school with reduced timetables, others are referred to CAMHs and for counselling, but unfortunately many have up to 24 months waiting time for any form of intervention of treatment, and that is if they meet the criteria for support. There is currently no national standard to acknowledge and support our children. Some are recognised as being too ill to attend school and have access to core subjects at home through the LEA medical needs team, and the a few are offered places at alternative provisions or therapeutic schools. For many the help comes too late, but thankfully with support, time for healing and not giving up, some manage to pick up a more suitable education later, and overcome or adapt to their difficulties.
What if we focused on what our children need rather than the sticking plaster approach of patching them up then sending them back to the front line? What if schools could forget their attendance targets and were supported to provide for, and even measured, by children’s wellbeing. Many schools are not healthy places for anyone. Attendance rewards add to this culture of going to school ill, of not being allowed to take time to recover and be well.
Schools need preventative measures in place, and early intervention, peer support for families and help from the professionals we turn to rather than criticism and unreasonable targets -and definitely not threats of prosecution, and child protection orders. Would the majority of these parents be reaching out for help and willing to try anything, if they didn’t love and care for their children and want the best for them? Kindness and common sense has gone from most organisations. Resources have dwindled, but surely if we all work together – health, education and parents and their children, we can use the resources we have and help all children to not only be fine in school, but to thrive in school, and be prepared for a happier, healthier adulthood.
Some refusal/ not really fine in school responses
Feeing generally unwell
Extreme distress with extreme crying
Uncontrollable shouting, swearing
Extreme Violence and destroying property
Behaviour problems at school
Disturbed sleep patterns
Chronic fatigue, burnt out
Making themselves sick, or involuntary sickness.
Masking -Holding it all in at school, meltdowns at home
Unable to leave their room or home
Unable to get into or out of the car
Hiding or running away
Drug or alcohol abuse and other risky behaviour
Refusal or inability to engage with professionals
Bearing in mind all of the above, here is a list of some professional advice actually given to school refusal families
S/he is fine in school. Just get her/him in.
Have you tried a sticker/reward chart?
Tell them to pull themselves together or get on with it Tell them to go to school
“If it was my child I wouldn’t give them a choice.””
“S/he’ll out grow it. Its a phase
Restrain them and force them into school
This is bad behaviour
There is nothing wrong with your child.
Don’t take him to specialists, that can cause childhood trauma.
Take them in their pyjamas if they refuse to get dressed
Take away everything they enjoy
Remove their computer and devices
Its your parenting, you need to set firmer boundaries.
Its teenage behaviour. Don’t let them be in charge.
My Children don’t like getting up in the mornings either.
If you don’t sort this out now s/he will still be living with you when s/he is 40!
Earn points for a big reward
Make things at home as miserable as you can so they want to go to school
Trust school that they are fine when they get there
Shall I come and collect him and show you how to get him in?
They have learned this from you. You are projecting your worries.
Wait for Cahms
Why Haven’t you medicated him/her?
Everyone else attends school all day every day so s/he should be able to
They need to face their phobias and fears, not run away from them.
Don’t believe them, they are just pushing your buttons to get what they want.
They wont be able to pick and choose their hours and tasks when they have a job All subjects are important so they cant drop any
Call the police
Threaten them with social workers taking them away!
Tell them their parents will be fined, prosecuted or even go to prison
We cant authorise this absence as illness.
Lectures on the effects of missing education on results.
They can do a part time timetable for a limited time.
They can go to hospital school, or have home tuition
How about moving schools or home educating?
Most of those suggestions are ridiculous when considering the gravity of their problems. Who would tell person who was ill and desperate that a sticker chart or pulling themselves together would heal them, or that that their parents would go to prison if they didn’t get well? It’s been reported by a lot of our parents are to be unlikely that anything on the list would help with such a complex problem. Many parents have tried to follow much of the advice. Sadly most of these opinions and suggestions have actually made their problems worse. Who would want to risk causing further harm? Ultimately who would risk adding to their children’s problems ? And ultimately who would risk being that parent who finds their child really couldn’t cope and decided that suicide was the only way to make it all stop?
But what has worked, or is working for children and their families ?
To understand the reasonable adjustments and support needed, it helps to assess the causes. There is no “one size fits all approach” .
Sadly it is very common for schools to not acknowledge a child’s first signs of difficulty as they decline towards total non-attendance/ full school refusal, to do so would be to admit failings. It is too common that the response is to initially blame the parents, even though they are the people asking for help, the people living day to day with the distress and disruption of their child’s and who family’s lives.
Some parents report having a good relationship with school, and their child’s schools understanding the need to be flexible and supportive. Some have strategies and safe places and people trained and willing to overcome the barriers that many children face at school. Sadly too many schools do not have the necessary resources or training to support the most vulnerable children, but instead of blaming each other, the greatest success comes with everyone working together.
It is important to try to maintain good relationships with school, ask for help, and assure them that you want to work with them to support your child. Keep a record of all meetings, conversations, maybe even a diary to show what you have tried to do, and what did and didn’t work.
With the right support many of our children will manage to attend school again.
Once the major triggers and causal factors of the refusal are addressed, and the necessary support plan is in place the following have been found to help:
• A key person they trust such as an experienced pastoral manager to coordinate their return and gradual reintroduction plan agreed by parents, child, school and other professionals involved and inform all members of staff, not just those who teach them. Someone they can go to if they need support, and someone else if that person is unavailable. Somewhere safe and comfortable to go when school feels too difficult
• Adjustments for sensory processing needs.
• A leave card to allow a child to leave a class.
• Adjustments of the timings of the day, depending on the needs of the child eg.
• Arriving and leaving before the rush, a place to eat lunch, and break times with some friends if possible.
• An acceptance of some lateness, due to morning struggles, but being allowed to begin the day on a positive note.
• A reduced timetable with very gradual increases of time table, perhaps with reduced subjects or a flexible time table, and allowing reductions again when necessary.
• An alternative curriculum.
• Support to catch up with subjects missed through absences.
• Patience, kindness empathy and mutual trust.
• A policy and plan for bullying – need to know they can trust school to keep them safe, as many school refusers are vulnerable to bullying.
• Willingness of school to allow them to go home if they need them, to encourage them but not force them to remain.
• Recognition of their strengths and building on them.
• Encouraging them to participate in the parts of school they enjoy.
• Accepting that type of school just may not be the right place for a child to learn and making plans to find alternatives
• There are supportive on line learning providers, home tutors or alternative available to those unable to attend school – The La are responsible for providing an education if a child is absent for more that 15 days.
• Assessment for an EHCP or Statement to ensure the needs are adequately assessed and provided for – with extra support at school, specialist provision or an EOTAS package.
• Respect parent’s decisions to Home Education whilst a child recovers, or as a better way of meeting their child’s needs.
Schools that are willing to offer these are more likely to have less barriers to attendance . The culture of a school can make a huge difference, but sometimes because of the nature of these struggles, and despite schools best efforts, they can only operate within the existing system, with existing budgets, with existing skills. Further training and awareness, and changes to the system, or more access to alternative more suitable educational provision must be a priority if children are to actually manage to be fine in school.
Too many children do not get the support they need when they need it, and specialist help,therapy or provision is not be available in every location. The longer it takes to receive help and treatment the harder it will be to return. Some children are able to access alternative provision at school or at therapeutic schools. Some will be reintegrated into mainstream school. However many of these children and young people will not be able to return to mainstream school.
It’s important to remember that these school years are only a part of life and not worth seriously damaging their mental and physical health for. There are other opportunities for learning, at different times and in different ways that might work out better. Stay on roll if you can, as that should help you to access support but be prepared to consider other options if your child needs them, but consider other options too. Part time timetables can work, with only very slow, child led increases. Many have taken the decision to home educate, and it has worked well. Others find that the problems don’t instantly resolve by doing that, but with removal of the pressure to conform to a full time school education, children do access other education later on, many going on to further and higher education.
There seems to be more relevant support to access education on. Many are able to follow a chosen career, a career that fits their needs and that they can have success with. Interestingly most successful entrepreneurs didn’t follow a typical educational route to success and many of our children have dreams of careers not requiring so many formal qualifications in so many subjects. Sometimes we have to do whatever it takes to get them through these years so that they can come out on the other side ready for whatever the rest of their lives hold for them.
What can parents do?
Members of our Parent Peer support groups, where parents supporting one another report the importance of understanding our children and helping them, and the majority agree that physically forcing or even rewarding/punishing children into school is a completely inappropriate approach. Of those who have tried it, most regret it, and have not found it helpful, but that it caused more harm.
Instead of forcing them into school, parents emphasise the need to build trust between yourself and your child. Our children need to feel safe, to feel secure. They need to know someone is on their side. This builds resilience, and healing. Resilience is not about just getting on with is, but begins with feeling safe and being supported with the right tools.
Trust your instincts and those of your child. What is it that feels wrong? Has it been a gradual build up of a number of issues, or something specific?
Explore the possibility that
• They may need an assessment for Dyslexia, Autism, or ADHD. Criteria for diagnoses may not be fully met but aspects of these do still affect life, and especially school life.
• There may be other processing or learning differences that need assessement.
• There may be medical conditions that may have previously been missed.
• If they are already diagnosed are they getting the support they need, are all staff aware of their needs.
• Do they have a school send support plan, a health care plan?
• Do they need an ECHP needs assessment? Will school apply, or could you, maybe with their support ?
• Can you wait for school to assess? Could you arrange some private assessments perhaps with support from specialist charities? Waiting for NHS appointments especially CAHMs can take years and then not necessarily offer the relevant treatment and support. The absence of diagnoses however doesn’t mean that our children are well enough or able to attend school.
Parents with lived experience of these attendance difficulties emphasise how important it is to not take away things that comfort and lift them. Limiting computer time works for some, but for many this is their safe place, where they can succeed, and communicate with others. Taking this away from our children is taking away a life line.
Where possible encourage school to allow children to continue with the parts of school they actually enjoy and feel they can succeed with, even if that is lunch time, PE, or other extra curricular activities.
Actively encourage them to develop interests that will give them feelings of hope and happiness. Any moments spent out in the fresh air, moments of enjoyment, any opportunity to forget about their difficulties are part of healing.
Remember that you know your child better than any professional and your agenda for their recovery is not target, policy, or budget led. Trust yourself and don’t allow professionals to ignore you. You are often your child’s voice. Write what they say, record what they say and share with their permission share it. Children need to learn skills to overcome their difficulties but until there is adequate support in place, they often can’t cope with school.
It isn’t their fault, it isn’t your fault. Sometimes when you have tried and tried you need a break, and you have to keep as well as you can, and keep life going. Never underestimate the effects on the rest of the family and try to find ways to support everyone. Sometimes we have to do some surviving in the short term, whilst waiting for the long-term improvement. Often parents and other family members become very distressed, and also report a decline in their mental health, so it’s important to seek help for yourself too, as you need to be as well as you can be to not get sucked into a cycle of stressed responses that perpetuate the difficulties.
Research the relevant law, read the government policies on SEN, attendance, children too ill to attend school and supporting pupils with medical conditions and take copies to meetings to remind schools of their statutory duties, to remind them that they are allowed, even expected to make reasonable adjustments. Keep records of all appointments, meetings, medical and professional advice, of each request for help to build a chronology of the difficulties and the attempts to resolve them, to demonstrate what works and what doesn’t work. Take notes in meetings and email school with agreed points if they do not provide you with minutes. Ask for someone to attend with you for support. Ask for support and advice from Sendiaas, and if necessary legal advice from Ipsea or SOSSEN.
Don’t be afraid of threats, and maybe even pre-empt consequences by contacting LEA attendance departments and ask for help.
Join support groups, and reach out for help.
Join us at DEFINE FINE, https://www.facebook.com/groups/773420163493553 and others we recommend on our Define Fine Website Resources Page here
It’s important to share helpful information you have found with professionals involved in our children’s care, The NFIS/Define Fine Guide can be found here.
Ultimately, we need to bring this to the attention of decision makers – the politicians, the heads of departments, those with responsibility for education and children’s services, nationally and locally, and join with others who also share these difficulties so that we can campaign for, and actively promote the kind of changes that our children need.
Meanwhile recovery is a process – often with two steps forward, three steps back. Sometimes they will be relapses, or blips, maybe as a response to something, perhaps illness, a specific stress. Some strategies that have been known to help , might not continue to work. Whatever the stage, whatever the outcome, we have to do all we can to survive, to not let this define our children and hurt them more than they already hurt. Perhaps all we can do at times is hang on in there, with patience and a hope that things will be better, that somewhere there is a workable solution, one that can offer the support and skills to enable our children to engage in a suitable education. In the meantime, be grateful to have a child who was strong enough to express that something was wrong, and who felt strong enough and safe enough to say no to whatever it is they just couldn’t cope with, and be proud of every success, no matter how small. Quite often the seemingly small achievements are in fact huge successes and pave the way to others and better times ahead.
Copyright Louise Parker Engels
December 2017 updated January 2021