School Anxiety and Refusal

Sep 30, 2021

A recent BBC article reported that parent groups are warning of a "tsunami" of crippling school-anxiety cases leading to persistent and debilitating absence from education

There is no official data on absence due to school anxiety, but support groups are being flooded with calls. Indeed, talk of mental health, particularly children's mental, worsening has been widely reported during the pandemic.  

 So what are the facts? 

According to the Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), there was a rise in emotional disorders, particularly anxiety and depression, even before the pandemic. However, the changes brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic seem to have exacerbated this rise. 

In a survey carried out at the beginning of this year by mental health charity, Young Minds, it was reported that 67% of young people surveyed believed that the pandemic will have a long-term negative effect on their mental health. This includes young people who had been bereaved or undergone traumatic experiences during the pandemic, who were concerned about whether friendships would recover, or who were worried about the loss of education or their prospects of finding work. 

In the BBC article mentioned above, Mike Charles, a specialist solicitor in education law, was quoted as saying: 

 "School anxiety and generally the mental health of our children has been a massive issue for many years, but it's particularly more pronounced since the pandemic because the impact this has had on children has undoubtedly affected their mental health in a very substantial way."  

Mr Charles also said he had seen an unprecedented rise in the number of families contacting him because of a child with school-related anxiety.   

Should we be worried? 

Naturally, a decline in the mental health of young people is always concerning. However, this specific 'wave' of school-related anxiety in children is particularly worrying due to the sheer number of families facing this crisis with their children. The result of this is that many young people are missing school, which, after nearly a year of 'missed' school time, is compounding the issues of stress and anxiety for many families.  

There's also the problem that lots of children suffering with their mental health, and missing school because of it, are being labelled as school refusers or persistent absentees.  Many parents who have first-hand experience of this argue that the term' school refusal' isn't really helpful since it implies willful choice, but it has become the term most commonly used.  

In some instances, families who had previously agreed on a temporary part-time timetable for their child are now being told that this is no longer possible, as the school is having to take a stricter approach to attendance following prolonged school closures. This is not the fault of the school leaders, who are under tremendous pressure to get students back into school and full-time learning. Rather it appears to be an issue that schools and families require urgent support with to prevent it from becoming a full-blown crisis.   

Change afoot? 

Several organisations are currently raising awareness around school-related anxiety in young people, including Not Fine in School and Square Peg. These organisations are calling for greater flexibility within the education system to deal with students experiencing school-related anxiety. Fran Morgan, founder of Square Peg, has identified three strategies that she believes would be most helpful in supporting school refusers and their families: 

  1.  New legislation, including a new absence code for school refusal that evidences the scale of the problem and alleviates engaged parents from the threat of prosecution. 
  2. Research to identify effective school refusal strategies that work for children, parents and mainstream schools. 
  3. National guidance, and a flexible "toolkit" for school leaders, to ensure a consistent and inclusive response that promotes school partnership with parents. 

PEN agrees that urgent action is needed to support families and provide schools with essential guidance on how to manage this growing crisis with sensitivity and flexibility.  School refusal is a complex issue with no easy answers, and we know dedicated teachers are working hard to try and accommodate all students.  

 PEN would urge school leaders to act fast when they think there is a child in their school with school-related anxiety. If intervention can be put in place quickly, and the child in question is given the support they need, this can prevent prolonged periods of absence. As always, we'd also advise schools to keep the conversation open with parents, trying not to make assumptions, and listening to families so that they can openly share their feelings without fear of being judged.  

 There are also some great online websites and resources that schools can share with families that are facing these issues. These are listed below: 

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