Mental health and SEND support for pupils needed to tackle school absence, say MPs

Better support for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and those facing mental health challenges is needed to “reverse the worrying trend of children’s absence from school”, according to MPs.
Mental health and SEND support for pupils needed to tackle school absence, say MPs

Members of the House of Commons education committee have made the recommendations amid rising rates of absences and persistent absentee rates, where pupils miss at least 10 per cent of their lessons.

They warn that absence rates “are significantly higher among pupils with SEND”.

During their investigation into absence rates and disadvantage, MPs were told by experts that a “failure to meet the needs of children with SEND is the main cause of their absence” and exacerbates issues such as stress and anxiety.

MPs want the Department for Education to prioritise support for mainstream schools to be inclusive and carry out assessments to help SEND pupils.

They welcome the DfE’s SEND and alternative provision improvement plan, which proposes recruiting more educational psychologists and improving training for teaching assistants, with MPs adding that its “successful implementation”, will be key to tackling absence rates.

Another factor in this rise in absences is the lack of support for children with a mental health problem, warn MPs. They cite evidence from the charity Mind, which says only one in four children are able to claim an authorised absence from school when complaining of a mental health issue. Many are forced to take unauthorised absences as a result, with their families risking fines.

The DfE is being called on to introduce a mental health absence code to set clear thresholds of authorising absences for mental health problems. This would also end the need for children with known mental health difficulties to repeatedly provide medical evidence. 

A cross-government assessment of the scale of mental health problems among pupils and a review of current support available is also being called for. MPs want this review to report its findings by summer 2024.

The education committee also notes NHS figures showing just under a fifth of seven- to 16-year-olds had a probable mental disorder in 2022, up from one in eight in 2017.

In making their recommendations, MPs cite latest government full year figures for 2021/22 showing an absence rate of 7.6 per cent among pupils, up on pre pandemic rates of between four and five per cent.

Persistent absentee rates are double pre pandemic rates, they add. Figures for the 2022/23 autumn term show that persistent absence had risen to just under a quarter of pupils.

"Missing school is damaging to children’s education, their development, future prospects, and in some cases, it is a safeguarding risk,” said committee chair Robin Walker, Conservative MP for Worcester.

“What happened during the pandemic is a crucial part of the story of how we got here, and recent research suggests some worrying changes in parental attitudes as a result.

“But other key factors that interlink with the impacts of Covid, such as sky-high waiting lists for children’s mental health services and some children with SEND not getting the right support quickly enough, are also putting incredible pressure on families and schools.”

A nationwide roll out of attendance mentors is also being called for by MPs. This is being piloted by Barnardo’s in areas with high absence rates and sees mentors work directly with severely absent children to overcome barriers to attendance and help them back into school.

MPs are also calling for a national register of children not in school and being home educated. The measure was originally part of the ​ but was subsequently withdrawn despite commitments from ministers.

Local Government Association children and young people board chair Louise Gittins welcomed MPs' backing for a register adding “this needs to be combined with powers for councils to meet face-to-face with children”.

She added: “Good attendance at school plays a vital role in children’s development, however councils lack the powers to ensure children who are missing school don’t slip through the net, such as directing academies to accept pupils.”

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