Mental health cited for pupils missing school

Children sitting in a classroom
Figures show that 40% of secondary school pupils in Wales missed, on average, an afternoon a week of the last school year [Getty Images]

Panic attacks, anxiety, and problems with mental health are among the reasons given by children who avoid going to school, in the wake of a rise in absenteeism in Wales.

Figures show that 40% of secondary school pupils in Wales missed, on average, an afternoon a week of the last school year.

One school head said teachers are having to resort to driving to pupils’ homes to try and get them back to their classrooms.

Education Secretary Lynne Neagle said the Welsh government is funding training for teachers and school staff to support pupils' mental health needs.

Pupils who are persistently absent because they feel anxious about school comes under the banner of emotionally based school avoidance (EBSA).

Liam from Newport, 14, who is neurodivergent and has been prescribed medication for his mental health by a psychiatrist, has missed long periods of school over several years.

“I never liked going to school. Never wanted to go out every day,” he said.

“It made me feel stressed, anxious, nervous, obligated.”

He hasn’t been in a school setting since 2022 but has had periods of home tutoring funded by the local authority, as well as specialist support.

Liam, 14, says he feels stressed and anxious at the thought of going to school [BBC]

“There’s loads of things that I want to do in the future that I want to have the money to do, but if I don’t have GCSEs, I don’t feel I’ll be able to get a good enough job with a good wage.”

His parents, who both work in the education sector, said they’ve had to reduce working hours to be at home with him.

“There’s been very few positive experiences,” said his mother, Abby.

“But when you do manage to find that member of staff that gets it, whether it’s from their own experience or training, they’re like gold dust.”

One pupil from Gwynedd, Elsi - not her real name to protect her identity - said she would hide under her kitchen table and lock herself in her bedroom because the thought of going to school triggered panic attacks.

She eventually dropped out of school due to social anxiety and mental health difficulties.

Her mother, Fflur - also not her real name - said her daughter would cry and have panic attacks before going to school.

"At the worst part, [she] would start biting myself, kicking myself in the back and crying a lot,” said Fflur.

"Even thinking about going to the school would cause a panic attack. The children, the screaming, the shouting, the running around.

"About a couple of years after, she did start self-harming.”

She said her daughter experienced suicidal ideation and was twice admitted to hospital.

Simon Davies
Head teacher Simon Davies said school staff are visiting absent children at their homes [BBC]

Persistent absence in Wales is now defined as those who miss 10% of school sessions.

In March, figures for secondary schools showed 40% of pupils had been persistently absent in 2022-23, compared to 17% in 2018-19.

Although recent monthly figures show some improvement, one school in Swansea have had to put extra plans in place to try and get pupils back.

Simon Davies, head teacher at Ysgol Gyfun Gymraeg Bryn Tawe, said: “Heads of years with pastoral support officers have gone out to homes.

“I know that also happens at other schools.”

Assistant head Mark Bridgens, who is responsible for wellbeing at the school, said he worries about children’s safety.

“Teachers are now becoming mental health specialists,” he said.

“When they’re not in school, you do worry. I think there is a risk of a crisis on the horizon.”

Professor Ann John
Prof Ann John warns of the lasting impact of missing school on young people [BBC]

Ann John, professor in public health and psychiatry at Swansea University, warned of the impact of poor attendance will have on children's prospects in the future.

“If we see attendance as a marker, as a symptom of other problems, if we’re not addressing those, then we’re storing and saving them up for later," she said.

Education Secretary Lynne Neagle, who chairs an attendance task force to try to address the problem, said: “It’s difficult to find a silver bullet in this space, but mental health support in school is really a big part of the solution.

“Every child aged year six and above is entitled to access school counselling in Wales. We’re funding training for the teachers and school staff so that they can better support pupils and we’ve got our CAMHS [Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services] in-reach.”

The Welsh Conservatives' shadow education minister, Tom Giffard MS, accused the Labour government of having "no plans to tackle soaring absenteeism in Wales".

A Plaid Cymru spokesperson said: "The recommendations of any task force must be carried out urgently, or Labour will continue to fail our children."

The Welsh Liberal Democrats have been asked to comment.

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