Increase in school absences from Covid driven by anxiety and lack of support, say British councils

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Rising anxiety and a lack of mental health support are leading to a sharp increase in children missing out on school following the Covid pandemic, with some children ‘struggling to leave home’, according to advice in England.

Local authorities are also highlighting budgetary pressures that have forced cuts in school support staff, with some schools trying to ‘manage’ students out of classrooms or camouflage their attendance records, while others are ‘out of class’ students ” to artificially boost school exam results.

Evidence presented to Commons Education Select Committee MPs says parents are being more wary of sending their children to school with minor ailments due to public health messages during the pandemic.

Related: One in five students in England have been consistently absent in their last school year

The comments from local authorities come as policy makers and school leaders grapple with how to reduce sustained levels of absenteeism in classrooms.

The latest attendance data from the Department of Education (DfE) revealed that absences in the spring term this year were still 50 per cent higher than before the pandemic, while in 2021-22 more than one in five students at the school secondary was “persistently absent” due to missing 10% or more of sessions.

In its evidence to the committee, which is carrying out an investigation into truancy, Essex council said: ‘Anxiety and mental health issues are one of the most significant factors behind our recent increase in persistent absence /grave from school.

“We have seen significant growth in the cohort of children and families struggling to leave their homes. Some of these families suffered from anxiety before the pandemic, but many of the current mental health conditions and anxiety appear to have developed during the pandemic/lockdown times.”

The council said mental health support services were unable to cope with the growing number of cases. “As a result, our schools experience significant growth in the cohort of children who are out of school while they await their assessment and treatment or have persistent/severe patterns of absence that can be difficult to challenge,” she said.

The Local Government Association (LGA) said schools were forced to cut pastoral support, making it more difficult to encourage vulnerable children to attend.

“Some schools have managed these pressures with practices to influence which students are admitted or practices designed to manage children out of school, such as the inappropriate use of attendance codes, part-time schedules, informal exclusions, out-of-course, and inappropriate use of permanent exclusion,” the LGA said in its evidence.

The LGA said there are “increasing numbers of children in the mainstream school system with additional needs that can cause barriers to school attendance,” including trauma, deprivation and poverty.

Essex council said public health advice issued during the pandemic had “reconditioned” attitudes in favor of keeping children away. “Some parents/families, who prior to Covid valued good school attendance, can now allow their children to stay at home with minor ailments that they would previously have considered invalid,” it reads.

The DfE’s plans to reduce absences include local authorities making greater use of legal powers to enforce attendance. The councils told MPs that while they supported the DfE’s goals, they lacked the resources to achieve them.

“Many local presence teams are already operating at full capacity. Councils have consistently communicated to us that they fundamentally lack the capacity and resources within their school attendance teams to fulfill the new tasks given the increased number of schools they will be working with,” the LGA said.

Essex said the DfE’s plans would require it to have 40 attendance staff, compared to the eight it can afford to employ. “We will not be able to achieve this level of staffing without additional undisclosed funding,” the council said.

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