PA0195

Written evidence submitted by Chance UK

Chance UK is a London-based charity delivering services across the UK. We have over 25 years’ experience working with children who have faced trauma in their childhood. We use evidence-based interventions to respond to each child’s individual needs. Through one-to-one mentoring, group sessions and school workshops, our team of experts support children to develop the skills they need to build a brighter future. We offer the child’s family specialist support to build their knowledge, skills and personal resilience. Where needed, we also work with the child’s school and any other support service involved.

Reason for Submitting

We are submitting a response to the call for evidence because we have an accumulation of over 25 years of expertise of working with some of the most vulnerable families, children and young people in London – and have witnessed how vulnerability and school engagement has been impacted negatively since the events of 2020.

Last year, 35% of children we supported had social care involvement, 65% were accessing, or were on the waiting list for CAMHS support,45% had experience of domestic violence 71% were eligible for free school meals (up 20% from pre pandemic levels) 13% had links/experiences with the criminal justice system, 23% were excluded from school and 56% were affected by parental factors, e.g., substance misuse and mental health. Many of these children experienced difficulties across multiple areas of their lives - 84% of children impacted by Criminal Justice were also receiving Free School Meals, and 48% who had social care involvement were impacted by parental addiction.

Submission

We welcome this inquiry into persistent absence, particularly the focus on understanding the causes of absence and what support is needed. We urge the Education Committee to put the child’s outcomes at the centre of this inquiry, and to keep an open mind about what factors emerge as those causing absence and how children can be supported. As an organisation who has delivered services across London and the UK since 1995, we have seen an increase in the complexity heightened in recent years for example we have had a 20% increase in the number of children accessing Free School Meals and indication of worsening economic circumstance.  As a service, we have recently changed our operating model to introduce professional Youth Workers due to the increased complexity of cases and safeguarding concerns including self-harm and suicidal ideation in children of primary school age. This enables us to better meet the needs of an increasingly vulnerable population.

Based on our nearly three decades of experience supporting children with complex childhoods, we would like to focus our submission on five primary areas of learning:

  1. Trauma-informed Approach

We believe all schools should take a holistic trauma-informed approach to absence, supported by significant financial investment to enable schools to invest fully in training, higher staffing ratios and the additional expertise needed to create a successful whole-schools approach. One in three children experience trauma in their childhood (source: The Lancet Psychiatry) This exposure can have a life-long impact on the child’s wellbeing, behaviour, attainment, attendance and future life chances.

Schools which don’t recognise that all behaviour, including absence, is communication, and who don’t seek to understand the “why” behind what they see, damage the bond of trust between themselves and the child. We have seen that persistent absence can be a symptom of a much more complex environment that a child is a part of, and to simply focus on the absence would be denying the wider context – persistent absence does not occur in isolation.

Throughout this work, we would strongly urge a holistic and supportive approach in understanding the whole picture rather than reaching for punitive measures early on.

  1. Wellbeing At the Centre

We are currently amid a national mental health crisis, and we cannot under-estimate the impact this has had on children. As they are, waiting list times mean children and young people aren’t getting the support they need, when they need it. A child struggling with their mental health, such as significant anxiety, will find it increasingly challenging to attend school consistently without the right support. It is also important to note that this support is likely to be needed over the long-term and the change in the child is incremental over time.

We would also argue that a child’s wellbeing must be the priority as the foundation for attainment and attendance. Psychological and physical safety are pertinent to learning. Hidden struggles, unmet or undiagnosed need will act as a barrier to establishing a foundation from which the child can learn. An overly narrow focus on academic achievement in a school environment, where the pressure of assignments, tests or making grades can add to overwhelming pressure to children who already live complex lives. If we are serious about tackling attendance and attainment - then a broader look at the school system and how to make this work for a wider range of children is needed.Only once a child feels safe, well supported and valued will it be possible to look at tackling attendance. Our team of youth workers work closely with schools and encourage professionals to see the wider picture -that behaviour (including self -exclusion) is a way of communicating difficulties or distress that the child may be unable to name and express let alone overcome. Whilst doing so they also help the child to identify strategies to cope with what they are experiencing. We also see the impact of poor parental mental health on children and their attendance. One of the schools we work with explains, access to adult mental health support … I can’t justify paying for it out of our school budget but I know it’s the thing that that child needs to make them feel better, is I need their mum to feel better. There are established links between parental and child mental health and the outcomes for both the child and their care giver. A system that acknowledges the needs of both parent and child, and which helps empower them to build resilience will positively impact on the child’s attainment and engagement in education. We can see this in the journey of one child who upon referral had an attendance rate of 34% and are now showing an increased ability to engage with education and school life.

  1. Challenging Home Environments

We also see the impact of challenging home situations affecting children’s willingness and ability to attend school. An example being a young carer to a parent whith three younger siblings. The additional caring responsibilities for both parent and siblings have a significant effect on their ability to attend school. Better support for young carers and their families, is essential in enabling school attendance and to enable the child to engage in positive activities in a one-to-one setting which provides an opportunity to build resilience, self-esteem and confidence and coping mechanisms.

  1. Peer Relationships

Our work has demonstrated children have suffered from a lack of socialisation through Covid-19, however it is easy to overlook the capability and resilience they showed. Peer relationships are pivotal to a child’s wellbeing, and we consistently see that a child struggling to have and maintain healthy social relationships has wide-ranging impact. When a child loses faith that school is a safe space or feels isolated from their peers for any reason, absence can be a form of self-exclusion, enabling a child to control or at least avoid challenging situations. This underlying cause of absence needs to be better understood by schools. Youth workers can build a trusted relationship and rapport with the child often leading to disclosures that other professionals are unaware of.  The team are then able to support the school and parent to respond as well as providing wrap around and in school support to encourage the =to express themselves and engage with those around them through pro social behaviour and strengthened social and emotional skills.

Covid-19 naturally made school transitions harder, whether moving school or transitioning from primary to secondary, making settling into school and building those vital peer relations more difficult

The increasing digitalisation of life has also meant that growing portions of a child’s life are at risk of being misunderstood, hidden or unknown by parents and guardians. There is significant need to increase awareness and understanding of appropriate online safety as we see increasing numbers of children developing relationships online, often without strong knowledge of boundaries and personal safety, heightening the risk of toxic relationships.

The lack of support available through the pandemic, including through schools and social services, compounded the risks children have been, and continue to be exposed to. Children need role models of good relationships and increasingly we see the need to develop what a healthy relationship looks like. A focus and awareness of healthy relationships is key to building the confidence, resilience and self-esteem to combat the negative influences children are open to online or through peer-pressure.

  1. Parent-School Relationship

Parent views and experiences of education can affect child’s expectations and understanding around school. Similarly, our work supporting school transition has identified a need to work with the parent to process their own experiences and understanding of this key moment in development to support a child who is in or approaching the same milestone

A trauma informed approach to working with the child and parent (understanding their own experience of education) can lead to greater educational and social outcomes. These are worsened if learning needs have not been identified and are left unmet with a fear that their child will face the same experience.

There is a significant bridge to build with some families, to break that cycle of mistrust and to change the dynamic from paternalistic to a positive, collaborative effort to jointly support the child to realise their potential. Our practice sees youth workers and parent support workers come together to form a team around the family to adopt a unified way of communicating, listening and supporting children at home, and in the school environment. Working with and agreeing a strategy to encourage school attendance is more effective and results in a more cohesive approach than a punitive system.

Summary

Our experience shows that persistent absence is a symptom of a myriad of complex and challenging causes unique to each child. For this reason alone, we urge the inquiry to consider exploring wider system mapping to understand this issue in the detail it deserves. To focus on the presentation of absence alone would be a disservice to children and young people, denying them their multifaceted and personalised narratives. We welcome this inquiry and hope it leads to a greater level of support for children and young people in all areas of their lives, enabling them to engage fully in a school experience and ultimately reach their potential.

February 2023