PA0104

Written evidence submitted by YoungMinds

I am writing on behalf of YoungMinds to provide a written submission to your Committee’s inquiry into persistent absence and support for disadvantaged pupils. We welcome the attention that you are giving to this important issue.

YoungMinds is the leading children and young people’s mental health charity in the UK, and we put the experiences of children, young people and families at the heart of everything we do. This submission will draw on the insights and lived experiences of the children, young people, parents, carers and professionals that we work with, alongside wider research.

Context:

This inquiry is taking place against a backdrop of an unprecedented crisis in young people’s mental health, with record numbers seeking support. NHS Digital prevalence data from 2022 showed 1 in 4 young people now have a probable mental health condition, up from 1 in 9 in 2017. [1]

Schools play an extremely important role in supporting young people with their mental health, allowing young people to have structure and routine, contact with trusted adults and peers, and providing support and guidance to young people in terms of both their academic progress and emotional wellbeing.

In 2022, we surveyed more than 14,000 young people as part of our response to the consultation on the 10-year national mental health plan (which is now to be replaced by a section in the Major Conditions Strategy). Young people told us that education is the most important issue the Government needs to address to improve their lives, with 77% of young people indicating its importance.[2] Only 3% said education settings are a positive influence on their mental health, while 59% said school, college or university has affected them negatively in some way.[3]

Key points:

 

 

 

 

Recommendations:

 

 

  1. Factors causing persistent and severe absence among different groups of pupils

Social inequalities

School attendance policies can determine the education outcomes of marginalised pupils by exacerbating existing inequalities. Research on adversity by YoungMinds has shown that trauma, often experienced by minoritised groups, may cause a young person to adopt ‘risky or challenging behaviours, which are frequently misinterpreted or criminalised by those who do not identify their full need’.[4]

Zero-tolerance school policies which target behaviour exacerbate existing socioeconomic inequalities and penalise marginalised young people, including many who will have experienced trauma both during and before the pandemic. These same policies have a long-term negative impact on the mental health of Black pupils in particular: a zero-tolerance approach to behaviour appears to ‘intensify disadvantage over time’, and this punitive approach contributes to Black pupils feeling less safe and more threatened in school. [5] These policies create a negative perception of the school environment for these students and will have a negative effect on attendance.

Research by Mind on the link between school attendance and mental health showed that there was a particular correlation for young people from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller backgrounds.[6] Of the young people interviewed from these communities, all but one reported experiencing racism at school and over half often missed school, with reasons cited including anxiety, difficulties managing anger due to issues at home, and the mental health impact of bullying at school.

Pupils struggling with their mental health

Persistent absenteeism often stems from young people struggling with their mental health. This can be for reasons both within and outside of the school environment, such as bullying, trauma, caring responsibilities or a stressful home environment. As parent-led organisations including Square Peg and Not Fine in School have shown, the current approach to attendance difficulties, which often uses punitive measures, can be counterproductive - particularly when mental health diagnoses or support are difficult to access.

 

  1. How schools and families can be better supported to improve attendance

In-school mental health support

School attendance is strongly linked with pupil mental health, and in order to improve and support school attendance, YoungMinds recommends the rollout of Mental Health Support Teams and Designated Senior Leads for Mental Health is accelerated to all schools by 2028. These teams should also feel relevant and accessible to the communities they serve. This means being sensitive to the different needs and experiences of pupils who have additional needs or who come from marginalised backgrounds. If a child has an emerging mental health need, it is crucial that schools provide early support themselves or signpost to local services that can do so, to prevent problems from escalating to the point where NHS services are required.

Such support should be considered a specific strategy to address persistent school absence, especially in light of the rise of absent pupils in the wake of COVID-19. In research undertaken by YoungMinds, young people explained that they were often not able to access support during the pandemic that they would usually have access to, and felt that previously available coping mechanisms were no longer viable. [7]As primary points of contact with pupils, schools have the opportunity to intercept and support students who may be struggling with their mental health, which will be a preventative measure that may ultimately improve school attendance.

Mental Health Support Teams must sit alongside other forms of support to ensure that as many young people are able to access help that works for them within the school environment. It is imperative that all trusted adults who work with young people have access to continual training on mental health.

A whole-school approach to persistent absence 

A whole-school approach to mental health ‘refers to a universal, school-wide, and multi-component approach to the promotion of children’s and young people’s wellbeing and mental health’. [8] Research shows that a positive school climate that enhances belonging and connectedness is a key protective factor for young people’s mental health.[9]

There is a strong and growing evidence base that universal, whole-school approaches to wellbeing, and social and emotional learning, can have a range of benefits for individual students, staff and whole-school populations, including higher engagement, attendance and academic attainment, improved behaviour, reduced anxiety, bullying and stigma.[10] [11]

A recent study by YoungMinds and UK Youth shows that access to trusted adults – adults with whom young people have ‘an ongoing, positive and trusting relationship’—is a clear protective factor for young people’s mental health.[12] School is one environment where access to trusted adults is available to the majority of young people, and promoting a whole-school approach to mental health assists in fostering positive relationships between young people and trusted adults. Engaging parents, carers and young people should be the first port of call when young people are struggling to attend school, as opposed to recourse to sanctions.

Prioritising a whole-school approach to mental health, taking into account the impact of structural, socioeconomic, and in-school factors to understand why young people may be exhibiting challenging behaviours is crucial to facilitating a safe, supportive, and understanding school environment. Particularly in the wake of COVID-19, young people must be supported to reach their full potential, not punished for displaying distress.

Pupil involvement

As part of the proposed school policy to put in place mechanisms to promote good attendance, YoungMinds recommends that young people are involved in the co-production of behaviour policies within the school environment. Fostering a sense of belonging in young people is integral to them viewing the school environment positively, thus allowing it to become a protective factor for their mental health. As explained above, better mental health will bolster and promote school attendance.

 

  1. The impact of the Department’s proposed reforms to improve attendance.

The Department for Education’s proposed reforms do not address the underlying causes of persistent absence and are likely to be counterproductive. In recent years, the Government has pursued measures such as increased monitoring, attendance registers and encouraging punitive sanctions, including fines for parents. This approach puts the responsibility on parents, without providing them with support to help their child feel able to attend school and feel supported while they’re there. The use of these measures can also adversely impact the relationship between school and families, despite parental engagement being a key element of a whole school approach to mental health. Families should receive support and be treated with understanding if their child is struggling to attend school because of their mental health, rather than being threatened with sanctions.

We welcome the additions made to the “Working together to improve school attendance guidance, following the public consultation last year.[13] We are pleased to see the section on building strong relationships with families and the move towards encouraging schools to “take into consideration the sensitivity of some of the reasons for absence and understand the importance of school as a place of safety and support rather than reaching immediately for punitive approaches.” It was also encouraging to see the guidance recognise the need to remove the in-school barriers that pupils with SEND and pupils with mental health conditions face, such as by considering support or reasonable adjustments.

However, despite these promising additions, government policy has not made a significant shift away from punitive approaches to school attendance. As evidenced in the above sections, reducing persistent absenteeism will only happen if schools take a more preventative approach that proactively supports attendance and prioritises pupils’ mental health.

February 2023


[1] NHS Digital. (November 2022). Mental Health of Children and Young People in England 2022 - wave 3 follow up to the 2017 survey: https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/mental-health-of-children-and-young-people-in-england/2022-follow-up-to-the-2017-survey

[2] YoungMinds’ Submission to the Department of Health and Social Care’s 10 year plan for mental health call for evidence (July 2022), p.11. For a copy please email ellie.whitlock@youngminds.org.uk

[3] Ibid.

[4] YoungMinds (2016): Beyond Adversity: Addressing the mental health needs of young people who face complexity and adversity in their lives. https://www.basw.co.uk/system/files/resources/basw_45241-4_0.pdf

 

[5] UCL Institute of Education and National Education Union (2020): https://neu.org.uk/media/13036/viewg ; Lacoe, J. (2016) Too Scared to Learn? The Academic Consequences of Feeling Unsafe in the Classroom. Urban Education, 1–34, DOI: 10.1177/0042085916674059

[6] Mind (2021): https://www.mind.org.uk/media/8852/not-making-the-grade.pdf

[7] YoungMinds (2020). Coronavirus: Impact on young people with mental health needs: https://www.youngminds.org.uk/media/xq2dnc0d/youngminds-coronavirus-report-march2020.pdf

[8] Centre for Mental Health (2019): https://cypmhc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/MakingTheGrade.pdf

[9] Anna Freud Centre: https://www.mentallyhealthyschools.org.uk/risks-and-protective-factors/learnmore/

[10] Weare, K and Nind, M (2011). Mental health promotion and problem prevention in schools: what does the evidence say?, Health Promotion International, Vol. 26 No. S1 Oxford: OUP

[11] Banerjee R et al (2016). Promoting Emotional Health, Wellbeing and Resilience in Primary Schools

[12] YoungMinds and UK Youth (2022). Someone to turn to: Being a trusted adult for young people: https://www.youngminds.org.uk/professional/community-support/someone-to-turn-to/

[13] Department for Education (May 2022). Working together to improve school attendance: Guidance for maintained schools, academies, independent schools, and local authorities: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/working-together-to-improve-school-attendance