'Heavy-handed' attendance targets damage mental health

MP says being denied authorised absence is placing additional pressure on pupils suffering from a mental health issue

child with counsellor

An MP has raised concerns that school attendance targets are exacerbating pupils’ mental health issues, with families reporting that they struggle to get schools to support them when seeking medical help for their child.

In a House of Commons debate on children and mental health services, Steve Double, Conservative MP for St Austell and Newquay, said he was worried about the impact of refusing authorised absence on pupils’ mental health, which he felt was being driven by a “heavy-handed” approach from Ofsted towards attendance targets.

Mr Double said parents in his constituency reported that they were “struggling to get the school to support them as a family” when they needed to take pupils out of school because of mental health issues.

This included absence “to attend appointments with CAMHS [child and adolescent mental health services] or other organisations,” Mr Double said.

In one case, a school refused to recognise a pupil’s absence without them receiving a formal diagnosis from CAMHS, despite the fact it can take up to 18 months to wait for a diagnosis.

Mr Double said the school sent warning letters to the family about the amount of days their child had had away from school, as well as threatening the parents with legal action.

“All that was doing was exacerbating the problem and putting more pressure, more stress and more distress on the family at an already difficult time.”

Mr Double said teachers and headteachers needed to be “more understanding and more compassionate” towards pupils with mental health issues.

Pressure on families was “being driven by a heavy-handed approach from Ofsted in meeting attendance targets,” he said.

He said schools were prioritising targets rather than understanding the particular challenges families faced when they had a child suffering from a mental health problem.

Families faced “huge pressure” from schools as a result of this approach.

“Many children are aware of what is going on, and I am concerned that they are encouraged to bury the issue and go to school because they do not want the pressure put on their parents, rather than opening up and getting the help and support they need,” he said.

Earlier in his speech, Mr Double also raised concerns over the pressure on teachers to care for pupils with mental health issues, saying that there were expectations on teachers beyond their “role or responsibility”.

On Twitter, the author Dr Emma Sutton suggested that awarding high attendance was a form of discrimination against disability and medical conditions, and that schools which prioritised attendance at all costs could spread disease.

An Ofsted spokesperson said: “We are not involved in how schools set attendance policies, nor is it for us to set out how schools should train their teachers.

“Our new education inspection framework includes expectations that school policies should support high levels of pupil attendance. However, it also asks schools to take appropriate action when necessary.

“When inspecting, we will always take into account the fact that children can sometimes not attend school due to medical conditions.

“We do not expect school leaders to diagnose medical conditions. However, we do expect them to be able to identify concerns, and to know where to turn to for advice and support.”

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