Written evidence submitted by Tavistock Relationships


Many cases of poor school attendance could be targeted by providing better support for the family home by reducing parental conflict and building healthy family relationships which nurture children and support them as they attend school. There are many risk factors associated with children missing school, these may include: having a mental health condition, having family problems, having a negative attitude towards school or drug, and alcohol abuse (Anna Freud Centre).  We are calling on the Department of Education to take a wider holistic view to school absences which takes these deeper route causes into consideration.


Studies which examine the risk factors which lead to children missing school have only recently begun to recognise the family environment as a significant risk factor. This research, however, has overwhelmingly shown that there is a direct correlation between family problems and children’s schooling rates. Family environments have been found to be a factor which directly impacts school attendance and children’s academic achievement. A recent study which analysed children aged 5–16 found that ‘several family environment variables are indeed related to different severe levels of school absence in both broad and more nuanced ways’ (Fornader 2019). Bernstein and Borchardt 1996 identified several family variables which are directly associated with anxiety-based school refusal. These variables which lead to children refusing to go to school include lack of agreement among family members with respect to roles, inconsistency of family rules, greater communication issues, rigidity, and disengagement. 


Healthy families are characterized by adaptive functioning, good communication and problem-solving skills (Bernstein and Borchardt 1996 ). All of these factors encourage children to attend school, as the issues which may cause fear or anxiety surrounding school attendance can be talked about honestly and challenged by the parents who can therefore minimise the child’s fears and encourage them. These honest and vulnerable conversations are much harder to happen when there is parental conflict or instability within the family home, thus the child’s anxieties are increased- ignored, and the chance of them attending school decreases exponentially.


Families who display high levels of conflict have been found to ‘display a lack of intimacy and emotional expression in addition to higher rates of struggle and hostility among family members, leading some youth to display internalizing symptoms and risk-taking behaviours (Harold 2016)- such as bunking off school or refusing to go in an aggressive manner which parents struggle to counter. Indeed, ‘inter-parental conflict, negative parent–child relations, and parental divorce have been found to lead to a variety of negative psychological outcomes for the children, including increased anxiety, depression, aggression, hostility, anti-social behaviour/criminality, and other detrimental outcomes’ (Harold 2016). Each of these externalising problems reduce children’s likelihood to attend school and increase their likelihood of school suspensions or exclusions due to aggressive anti-social externalising behaviours. 


Parental conflict and family instability not only reduces the chances of a child attending school, it has also been found to negatively impact their academic achievements. Professor Gordon Harold in a longitudinal UK-based study of 230 schoolchildren (aged 11–13 years) examined associations between inter-parental conflict and child academic achievement using multi-informant assessments. After controlling for children’s initial levels of aggression, inter-parental conflict was associated with child appraisals of self-blame which in turn were associated with child academic performance (Harold 2016). This suggests that there are important implications for children’s long-term academic success who live in households marked by high levels of parental conflict.  This is not only the case for older children attending Secondary School education, a study by Sturge-Apple (2008) which examined children in their first year of Primary School, found that ‘inter-parental conflict was associated with children’s insecure representations of the inter-parental relationship’ which were directly associated with ‘children’s emotional adjustment and classroom difficulties.’


A variety of processes have been proposed to explain these outcomes, including early disruptions in sleep patterns, which have implications for neurobiological development and associated academic capacity/performance, negative peer relationships formed as a result of hostile inter-parental relations, and negative perceptual/attributional processes engendered in children as a result of hostile and acrimonious inter-parental relationships (Harold 2016).


Disrupted sleep patterns which are very common in families with high levels of conflict predict difficulties with attention and concentration at school. After controlling for a variety of background risk factors, one study found that sleep difficulties explained the impact of inter-parental conflict on primary school children's academic performance, with children from high-conflict homes achieving lower scores on math, language, and verbal and nonverbal school ability scales  (Sheikh 2006). A more recent study which examined the effect of inter-parental conflict on children's sleep problems in children demonstrated the negative effects it has on early child development, with regulated sleep being recognised as an essential requirement for children's brain development (Safyer et all 2018).


Parental conflict therefore has not only been found to reduce children’s likelihood to attend school and their likelihood to succeed academically, it has also been found to decrease children’s ability to create healthy and sustained friendships in the classroom environment. This is largely because children who form negative representations of their parents' relationship are much more likely to form negative expectations of other relationships, including relationships with classmates, teachers, and peers (Harold 2016). Children from high-conflict homes have been found to have lower interpersonal skills, problem-solving abilities, and social competence. (Finger et all 2010) discovered a link between inter-parental conflict and young children's ability to get along with their peers in reception and early primary school.


Health and educational professionals, services, and policy makers should be aware that children with poor attendance may be experiencing emotional ill-health due to the state of their family home. It is essential therefore that early interventions are implemented to target the root causes of consistent school absences, as early intervention ‘will not only reduce immediate distress and difficulties for the young person but may also interrupt poor life trajectories and improve outcomes in later life’ (Cardiff University).


This inquiry provides the Education Committee with a unique opportunity to target the family dynamics which lead to persistent school absences. In order to improve school attendance, goals may include strengthening parenting relationships through parental support programmes and plans, educating family members about creative educational options, and establishing contracts or agreements to improve problem-solving ability and increase incentives for attending school  (Kearney 2019).


February 2023