‘My child was missing school because of illness – but I was accused of making things up’

Nearly two million of England’s nine million pupils are failing to attend school regularly
Nearly two million of England’s nine million pupils are failing to attend school regularly

“Your mummy will go to prison if you don’t go to school.” That was the chilling warning issued to my child at nine-years-old. Not because he was bunking off out of naughtiness. He had battled with complex and undiagnosed health issues since birth, which left him in frequent pain and made school a struggle.

These nuances were lost on the authorities, whose only priority appeared to be ensuring my child was present and correct at the school gates each morning. It didn’t seem to matter that there were very good reasons why the classroom was not an easy place for him to be. I wasn’t offered support and understanding. Instead, I got the dark threat of fines and, yes, imprisonment if I failed to ensure my child received his education in school.

Our own difficulties started almost a decade ago. But this week, a new study by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) reported that nearly two million of England’s nine million pupils are failing to attend school regularly. The pandemic was found to have prompted a “dramatic increase” in the number of pupils being home-educated after their parents had pulled them out of school. The report noted this figure was an “alarming” 34 per cent higher than before the pandemic.

As the parent of a child who has spent long periods absent from school, I would argue that what is alarming is not so much the headline figures – which in any case will be skewed by winter bugs – as the way families like ours are routinely dealt with. There’s a narrative that we’re either feckless or too soft on our “snowflake” children. In most cases, the truth is wildly different.

My child, at first, was desperate to avoid missing school. But he was extremely physically unwell – he was later diagnosed with a bowel obstruction, hypermobility and a genetic condition called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome that causes chronic pain – and attending the classroom took a huge toll, physically and mentally. At home, he was unravelling.

By Year 4, he couldn’t take it any longer. He was losing weight rapidly and ended up in and out of hospital in the West Midlands. At night, my child was shaking with pain and his joints were swelling. He was missing school as a result of illness – but I was being accused of making things up.

The experience was traumatic; my child’s mental health was shot to pieces as was mine. But like so many other families, we struggled to access the support we needed from the overrun Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).

My child was extremely distressed to see us threatened with fines and prosecution. In one letter from the school, I was told I was failing in my parental duty. In fact, it was my family that was being failed by a system ill-equipped to respond appropriately to the diverse reasons behind absence from school.

‘My child stopped trusting the school system’

Our story isn’t unique. Today, in the wake of the pandemic, the pressures on families are even greater. We have a youth mental health crisis. Schools are facing unprecedented cuts to their budgets and often lack the resources to properly accommodate children with special educational needs – children who then end up staying at home. And the cost-of-living crisis is driving more families into poverty, making it harder for them to afford school uniforms, bus fares, sports kits or even a packed lunch for their children, who may then miss school rather than turn up without. Indeed, the CSJ study authors found low-income families were more likely to opt for home education.

Research from mental health charities shows children sometimes cite other issues, such as big, noisy school environments, as a reason why they stay away. We have some enormous secondary schools in our cities, where children don’t always feel seen or known or supported, which in turn may increase their exposure to bullying or assault – and then their likelihood of absence.

These are not “ghost children”, as the Government has labelled them. They are children from families that feel ignored and disbelieved. I work in the charity sector, trying to effect change for children who struggle to attend school and, in that role, I have spoken to many parents whose child’s school refuses to authorise absence for mental ill-health. Children are being told they cannot possibly be anxious, and schools are refusing to send work home for pupils suffering with ill health, as they say they should be in school, full stop. Perhaps all this is no surprise when the schools are trying to meet strict attendance targets set by the Government.

The number of families struggling to access the support they need to enable their children to continue in school is growing. For instance, Not Fine in School, an organisation set up to help such families, had 100 members five years ago. Today, it has 35,000. Many of them have children in a school that doesn’t accept or believe the child is struggling.

The damage done to children by this goes beyond educational. My child stopped trusting the school system. Meanwhile, question marks hang over the potentially damaging effects of high-stakes testing and a narrow curriculum. These, too, can be factors that drive some children away from school. We know of children as young as seven developing anxiety around their SATs performance.

What ours and lots of other families have discovered is that if you only focus on attendance and missed learning, you stop considering the child and all their needs. We ended up in a position where my child could only access education on the basis they would be returning to school. He became very anxious about schoolwork altogether, because he thought, aged nine, that as soon as he started doing work, he’d be forced to go to school. And he knew he was too ill for that.

After my child had missed a year of school, it was recommended to me that I go on a parenting course. I literally laughed out loud. As if, after all we’d been through, the barrier to school attendance was my parenting. It was ludicrous and insulting.

‘Threatening parents does not improve outcomes’

My child missed Years 4, 5 and 6. By the time he reached secondary-school age, he had a fully-funded Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) in place; but our local high school, which his friends were attending and which was legally obliged to take him, said it couldn’t meet his needs – despite us living in the catchment area and accepting the place. And so my child was off-rolled. For the next two years or so, he was angry and mistrustful. The arrival of the pandemic exacerbated matters further: as my child was classed as clinically extremely vulnerable, he ended up suffering from a further two years of disrupted schooling and lost learning.

Today, aged 16, his physical and mental health has stabilised thanks to medication, and he attends a brilliantly supportive specialist school for children with anxiety and attendance difficulties. When he is too ill to attend, teachers let him access learning online instead – something we’d spent years asking for.

When considering why so many other pupils are still missing from school, we need to consider the system itself. It is, I’m afraid, not agile enough, focusing only on bums on seats, rather than asking, “What does this family need, and how can we help support this child to remain in education?” That might be via a part-time timetable, flexible learning or a staggered transition to secondary school, or through some other means maybe.

If we’d been shown more compassion instead of mistrust, perhaps my child would have missed far less of his learning. One thing is for certain: threatening parents with fines and a criminal record does not improve outcomes – least of all for the child who is struggling to access education.

Not Fine in School offers advice and information for families of children experiencing problems with school attendance 

As told to Rosa Silverman