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Absence from school and mental health

Updated: Dec 11, 2023

This is such a common theme in the discussions that I have with families! It is absolutely essential that we find common ground.

Earlier this term the House of Commons Education Committee published a useful report - "Persistent absence and the support for disadvantaged pupils" . Amongst the recommendations is the following sentence

"We recommend the introduction of an authorised mental health absence code with clear thresholds for its use, which could eliminate the need for medical evidence in cases of known mental health difficulties and reduce the need for intervention via prosecution."

The committee recognised that

"Mental health-related absences are not commonly authorised by schools, sometimes due to requirements to provide medical evidence which can often lead to fines or prosecution for families."

The educational news publication SecEd ran a useful summary article of the proposals -

The proposal sounds sensible, but it has several practical issues that will have to be overcome - here are just two that spring to mind:

  • The current legislation is clear that no student should be out of school for more than 15 days in a school year without appropriate education. The local authority has a statutory duty to ensure that appropriate alternative provision is in place after 15 days. For many of the families that I talk to, mental health needs - specifically anxiety - mean that the young person is out of school for far more days than that! So what does an appropriate education look like for a highly anxious child in a mainstream school? Is it time that we amended our view of what "full-time" education looks like for those with mental health needs?

  • The report indicates that a mental health code would be treated as authorised, just like the current sickness absence code, where a parent does not have to provide medical evidence for the first few days of sickness. How would that work, though? Many absences due to anxiety are recurring - in school for a day, off for a week, back in for half a day, off for 3 days etc.... A school would be very concerned about such a pattern of absence for a physical illness, and will have the same concerns for mental health issues. I am not sure that simply authorising absence due to mental health is going to help, but I am sure that removing the punitive aspect of "unauthorised" absence is a positive step.

This is going to rely on trust - on common ground - between family and school. The school has to believe that the parent is doing everything they can to balance their child's mental health needs with the need for them to be in school. The parent has to believe that the school is doing everything it can to create an environment within which their child can thrive. That is quite a lot to ask in some of the situations I am talking to families about!

At the heart of this is the question "what does an appropriate education look like for this child and how is it going to be provided, and by whom, today, tomorrow, next week.....?". A less punitive approach to mental health issues is to be welcomed wholeheartedly, but the level of trust, goodwill and resources that this is going to require should not be underestimated! Far easier, as now, to simply punish, sanction and implicitly disbelieve the family and the young person, but at what cost to the individual concerned?

As always, I am more than happy to engage with anyone around these issues, and to offer support to anyone seeking to help their child thrive in secondary school - just visit email or message 07767142877. I look forward to hearing from you.

James Harris

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