Mental ill health is main reason for pupil absences, survey shows

Nearly nine in 10 school leaders say that there has been a rise in pupils missing school because of mental health problems, and young people do not think that politicians are prioritising the issue ahead of the General Election

20th June 2024 about a 3 minute read
“There’s general agreement that the damage done by the pandemic to children’s mental health and well-being, the relationships between schools and parents and the overall culture of school attendance will take years to fix." Duncan Baldwin, consultant, Confederation of School Trusts

Poor mental health and anxiety are the main reasons for the increase in pupil absences since the Covid pandemic, according to a new survey of headteachers and other school leaders.

The survey, carried out by Bromcom, a management information system provider for schools, covered 498 UK schools, including both Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) and local authority-maintained schools. It found that nearly nine out of 10 (84%) secondary school leaders said there had been a marked increase in pupils missing school over the past two years because of mental health issues.

Other results showed:

  • 70% have seen an increase of absences over the past two years
  • 59% agree that more access to mental health support for students would have a positive impact on attendance
  • 51% of schools disagree that DfE advice on attendance is helping the issue
  • 65% feel that allowing Ofsted to review attendance as part of annual school checks would have very little or no positive impact
  • 68% have seen an increase in absence due to holidays taken in term time
  • 80% said the increase in fines for unauthorised absences will make no difference to the number of families booking holidays during term time

Lorraine Yates, assistant principal at Astrea Academy Trust, which has schools in South Yorkshire and Cambridgeshire, said that years 9 and 10 were seeing the biggest challenges “as they are the cohort of young people that was most disrupted by Covid and that were impacted by Sure Start Centres and Children’s Centres being closed.”  

She added: “Throughout their childhood up to the end of their statutory school age, they’ve missed out on quite a bit. From what we’re seeing in our academies, it has had an impact.” 

Yates also said there had been an increase in absences on Fridays: “Attendance has been known to drop to around 76% in some schools on Fridays – we are seeing an increase in extended holidays, where some families will choose to have a long weekend, and parents might say ‘well our children are tired and need a break from school’.”

Duncan Baldwin, a consultant for the Confederation of School Trusts said the problem would not be easy to solve: “There’s general agreement that the damage done by the pandemic to children’s mental health and well-being, the relationships between schools and parents and the overall culture of school attendance will take years to fix. There’s also agreement that there is no single silver bullet for the problem. Increasing fines, by £20 for example, as the government has announced recently, is probably unlikely to make much difference.” 

Parents are concerned about the state of mental health services

Another survey carried out on behalf of the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition, Mind and YoungMinds, found that less than half of young people (43%) thought that the main political parties running for the next election cared about their mental health.

Nearly three in five adults (59%), the survey found, think that politicians have not done enough on mental health over the last decade and less than a quarter of voters (23%) thought it would be prioritised in this election

At the same time, 49% of parents said they were concerned the state of mental health services would have an impact on their children’s futures.

Dr Sarah Hughes, chief executive of Mind, said: “When young people and their parents speak together with one voice, politicians need to listen. Investing in services like early support hubs for children and young people is a crucial way for politicians to show they understand the mental health challenges young people are facing and that they’re committed to tackling the issue.”

FCC Insight

This survey covering nearly 500 schools is more evidence that increasing numbers of pupils are staying away from school for mental health reasons. The rise appears to have been driven by the Covid pandemic, which may have led to more children experiencing stress and anxiety. At the same time, according to some headteachers, more families are now taking holidays during term-time or allowing their pupils to take Fridays off as part of a long weekend. These absences are likely to have a long-term impact both on children’s mental wellbeing and life chances, and there needs to be greater support both for parents and children to reverse the current trend. We hope the Department for Education’s plans to expand the attendance hubs programme in the autumn go ahead, along with greater investment in community mental health support for young people.