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 school anxiety absence, and many affected students are labelled truants, but support groups are inundated with calls.
And an education lawyer in north-west England claims the pandemic has exacerbated a “unprecedented crisis.”
The education department announced a £17 million investment in school mental health.
Children who suffer from school anxiety may experience physical symptoms such as stomach pain, nausea, and headaches before school, as well as immobilising anxiety, panic attacks, or what appears to be a tantrum.
They may even threaten to harm themselves if their parents force them to go to school, but their parents can still face fines and court action.
Fran Morgan, whose daughter suffered from school anxiety, founded Square Peg to assist other families in similar situations.
“We’re seeing a tsunami coming,” she says.
The problem is poorly understood and frequently mislabeled as “school refusal.”
“It’s not about refusal – it’s not about a child who refuses to do something. It’s about a child who can’t because of physical limitations “Fran explains.
“There is a crippling level of anxiety that prevents attendance, and the consequences for families are disastrous.”
Many parents are being prosecuted and fined as a result of legislation enacted to prevent parents from taking their children on vacation during the school year.
“However, it penalises all those parents whose children are trapped in the system,” Fran says.
“We are aware of all the issues with the special educational needs and disability system, as well as the difficulty in gaining access to children’s mental health services – many of those children are the ones who are struggling to attend, and parents are being penalised as a result.”
Matty, 16, from West Yorkshire, missed 18 months of school due to mental health issues and panic attacks.
“I don’t think people realise what it is,” he says.
“People would understand if I broke my leg, but they don’t because it’s not visible.
“I just didn’t want to go in – almost dread of going in.”
Heidi Mavir, Matty’s mother, says: “It was extremely difficult for both of us, in fact, for all of us.
“He was desperate to get to school – he was desperate to be in school.
“‘I’ll try again, Mum,’ he kept saying. I’ll give it my all.’
“But I think what people don’t understand about mental health, and especially anxiety, is that if you can’t do something, you can’t do anything.”
“No amount of trying to think yourself out of it will change that.”
Matty is now attending a specialised school.
Sinclairs Law chief executive Mike Charles, a specialist in education law, says he receives about 50 requests for assistance with the issue each week.
“We are facing an unprecedented crisis of unprecedented proportions, certainly in my experience spanning 30 years,” he says.
“School anxiety and, more broadly, our children’s mental health has been a massive issue for many years, but it’s become especially pronounced since the pandemic, because the impact this has had on children has undoubtedly affected their mental health in a very significant way.”
Not Fine In School was founded nearly four years ago by Beth Bodycote.
However, during the year ending September 2021, which coincided with school lockdowns and the pandemic, its membership increased by nearly 50% – to 17,924.
According to Beth, an increasing number of children and young people are struggling with mental-health issues such as anxiety, stress, and depression, but many schools are enforcing stricter attendance policies.
“For example, we’ve seen families who had planned a temporary part-time schedule only to be told it’s no longer possible,” she says.
“Fines and court action continue to be a threat for many parents, despite the fact that these punitive actions do nothing to address the underlying causes of absence from school.”
“There needs to be a shift away from strict blanket attendance and behaviour policies and toward a much more flexible and child-led approach, particularly for struggling children and young people.”
Parents are frequently asked to provide evidence of mental illness as the cause of absence, but a letter from a doctor is frequently insufficient.
And many families may still be waiting for or have been denied mental-health services.
“In exceptional circumstances, head teachers have discretion to authorise absence – and fines should only be used as a last resort,” a Department of Education official said.
“When a student does not attend, the school, family, and council should collaborate to develop an attendance plan, because the classroom is the best place for their education, development, and well-being.”