School absence rates have rocketed - the whole educational experience needs to change

Sue Roffey
Sue Roffey

Dr Sue Roffey (UCL Psychology & Language Sciences) explores the impact and reasons behind rising school absences in The Conversation.

More than  140,000 pupils  in the UK are absent from from school more than 50% of the time: more than double the number from before the pandemic.

Not being in school matters - and not only because pupils miss out on learning. Teachers play an important role monitoring the welfare of their students, and if young people are on the streets rather than at school they are also  more at risk of harm and exploitation.

Absence rates have prompted  increasing concern  from the government. Up until now, measures to tackle absence have focused on  blaming parents and issuing fines : more than a third of a million so far.

More recently, the government has acknowledged the role played by inadequate support for special needs and disability as well as the impact of mental health on pupil attendance. They have responded by increasing the number of " attendance hubs ": collaborative groups led by senior teachers in schools that have good attendance with the aim of sharing effective strategies with others.

But very little attention has been paid to what is actually happening in schools. Education needs to be more aligned with healthy child development, children’s interests, and the importance of relationships for wellbeing.

Children and teenagers are naturally curious and keen to discover the world around them. They want to be active participants in their own learning. And  self-determination - being able to make your own decisions rather than being controlled by others - is one of the major pillars of wellbeing.

Exam factories

But pupils in many schools have very little in the way of agency. They are told what to do and how to do it. Teachers feel pressure to  "teach to the test" , leaving pupils few options to follow their interests, let alone passions. As teenagers get older, the more  bored and disengaged  they may become in school.

One way of getting students back to school and engaged in learning is to give them more of a voice and increased choice in what they learn. Schools need a broader curriculum that promotes learning about the world because it is fascinating, not just to pass exams. But this will not happen while exam results and league tables dominate education.

What’s more, schools appear to be  increasingly resorting  to punitive approaches to  manage student behaviour.

Students may face discipline for not having the right equipment, being late, talking out of turn or in the corridor and uniform infringements. At  St Ivo’s Academy  in Cambridgeshire parents have set up their  own forum  to express concerns, especially about how discipline is affecting their children’s mental health.

Anxiety, depression and other negative emotions impede learning. Young people need to feel safe to focus well. Many do not. The organisation  Not Fine in School  supports families whose children are experiencing "barriers" to attendance. Their Facebook group has 37,000 members. It illustrates the many ways pupils can be scared, confused, embarrassed and sometimes panic-stricken in school.

As  one mother writes  on the Not Fine in School site:

" These past three years have been the hardest thing I have ever had to go through. Watching my vibrant, charismatic, full of life child, become a shadow of himself has been heartbreaking.

Instead, schools should be promoting the positive. Among other things, this means welcoming students, being kind, showing interest and taking account of their context.

Doing things differently

Conversations with children should identify and acknowledge the qualities they are developing and the progress they are making, rather than pointing out deficits and negatives. It also means students feeling they belong, that they  matter , and that they are valued and included.

Positive emotions and mental health are strengthened by  free play and playfulness. However, experiences that might enhance this in state schools, such as art, music, drama, dance and opportunities to have fun together, are  under threat  in state schools.

It does not have to be this way.  Estonia  has one of the best education systems in Europe: teachers have high autonomy in how they lead classes and children feel happy and safe in school. The school system in England  could learn  from the independence headteachers are granted to set the curriculum, a focus on wellbeing and no schedule of school inspections.

When policies and practices in state education aim to bring out the best in every child and prepare them to be active citizens of the future, maybe kids will actually want to come to school.

When  wellbeing is at the core  of a school’s endeavours, children will have better mental health and resilience, greater engagement with their learning and better results.

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