Andy Caress, Mental Health Trainer with the Charlie Waller Trust
In February 2023, the Children’s Commissioner for England, Dame Rachel de Souza, released her report Attendance is everyone’s business. This revealed that an estimated 818,000 of children were ‘persistently absent, meaning that they missed at least 10% of school sessions’. The report highlighted that ‘children aren’t absent from school because they don’t want to learn. On the contrary, they are desperate to learn but everyday thousands of children find themselves without the support that they need to engage in education and attend school’.
In this blog I’ll look at what we mean by emotionally-based school avoidance (EBSA) and how schools can help young people by adopting a supportive, whole-school approach.
The Anna Freud Centre recognises that EBSA ‘has its root in emotional, mental health or wellbeing issues’. As Not Fine in School observes, ‘all over the UK, families are struggling with children and young people who are severely anxious about school’. The Anna Freud Centre suggests that some of these anxieties can be related to issues such as academic pressure, family circumstances and social isolation within school. Research shows that children with Special Educational Needs and/or Disability (SEND) and young carers are particularly vulnerable to EBSA.
When I explain anxiety to young people, I often use the analogy of the smoke alarm. The job of a smoke alarm is to alert us to the presence of smoke. It can’t distinguish between a real fire and a burnt piece of toast and responds in the same way.
In the same way, a young person experiencing anxiety will go through the same physical sensation of fear and panic whether the ‘threat’ of attending school is genuine or perceived. As a result, many students facing EBSA will respond to these feelings by opting for ‘flight’, avoiding the school environment which has become the source of their distress.
This is clearly an area for concern. It is well established that regular attendance at school improves academic attainment, and there is pressure for schools to address non-attendance. Parents/carers can be fined or even prosecuted for their child’s non-attendance, and 20% of those recently surveyed by Not Fine in School revealed that they had been referred to social services for ‘educational neglect’ or fabricating illness.
But these punitive measures don’t deal with students’ distress or feelings of being unsafe or anxious in school. In fact they often add to the child’s feelings of guilt and distress. A 2017 report by the British Psychological Society noted that this approach is not even effective at increasing attendance.
So, what can schools do? To help students overcome EBSA, a whole-school approach is required, including:
On an individual level, targeted support should be provided for those who need it. This should help them develop positive coping strategies alongside adaptions where necessary so that school doesn’t become overwhelming.
You can find guidance on implementing a whole-school approach to mental health and wellbeing from Public Health England and the Department for Education. Similar guidance is available within the other nations of the UK, where education is devolved.
The Charlie Waller Trust can also provide free training and resources for schools.
One key area for consideration is training and support for school staff. Helping to raise awareness of child and adolescent mental health can improve empathy and understanding of the issues facing students and their families related to school attendance.
There is strong evidence to show that having a ‘trusted adult’ is a strong protective factor for a child’s wellbeing. Such a person is defined as one who is ‘chosen by the young person as a safe figure that listens without judgment, agenda or expectation, but with the sole purpose of supporting and encouraging positivity within a young person’s life’.
Unfortunately, the Young Minds Someone to Turn To report found that ‘teachers were not viewed as trusted adults, perhaps because the structures and expectations of education impact their ability to build these types of relationships with students’. Schools need to consider how to overcome these barriers to students seeking help, and to nurture a culture that encourages greater levels of trust and openness.
Dame Rachel de Souza states in her report that she wants to see students obtaining a 100% attendance record. However, she is keen to highlight that this optimistic target ‘is not about punishing or targeting parents if they, at present, do not have the support they need for their child to attend school’.
There is much to be done. Some aspects, such as reducing the waiting time to access mental health support, or the delays that families can face when attempting to navigate the SEND system, are systemic changes. But there is a lot that schools can do to make the school environment feel safe and positive for students experiencing EBSA and their families. Rather than relying on the ‘stick’ of punishment and stigma, we need to look to the ‘carrot’ of a student-centred, trauma informed approach that meets the needs of all the young people in our care.
If you have a moment, please take a look at our dedicated Mental Health Awareness Week webpage where we’re sharing anxiety and wellbeing lesson plans, blogs and podcasts for teachers and students.
Please let us know how you are marking Mental Health Awareness Week yourself and in your setting.
Share your thoughts in the comments below. If you have any questions, you can email us at email@example.com, call us on 01223 553998 or tweet us @ocrexams. You can also sign up to subject updates and receive information about resources and support.
Andy Caress is a mental health trainer with the Charlie Waller Trust based in Bridgend, South Wales. A qualified teacher and youth worker, Andy has been delivering mental health training for pupils and professionals since 2014 and in 2021 obtained an MA in Child and Adolescent Mental Health from the University of South Wales. As well as significant professional understanding, Andy also has lived experience of mental health issues which inform his work in supporting children and young people.