Claire Noyelle explores the reasons behind the recent increase in Emotionally Based School Avoidance and what can be done to support children and young people back into education.
If you are a parent of a school-aged child, you can almost certainly recall a day when it was a struggle to get them to school; Maybe they didn’t want to do hockey in the rain, or they had a tummy ache. Perhaps it was a ‘bad hair day’ or they had had a row with a friend. Maybe their hamster had died, or they were worrying about a test that day. Perhaps they hadn’t done their homework or were bothered by another student on the bus.
They all seem pretty innocuous reasons not to go to school; you may even have had similar situations that you can remember from your experience in school. For many school-aged children, avoiding school has been a way of life for months.
The Impact of Covid
The covid pandemic meant that a series of lockdowns impacted schools, with the vast majority of pupils and students staying home and working online. When the lockdowns were lifted, the expectation was that life would return to how it had been before – adults would return to work, children would go back to school, and life would be back to normal…
…But that wasn’t the case!
A growing number of people working in education, the media and children’s services are raising concerns about the rates of school absenteeism.
Before the pandemic, school absentee rates had been reasonably stable. There had always been a minority of children who struggled to attend school, but the figures were small, around 4% (a low of 4.1% in 2015/16, with a high of 4.8% in 2019/20).
The most recent figure, however, shows a jump to 7.8% of pupils absent from school.
This isn’t the only concern – the proportion of pupils missing 10% or more of school sessions (classed as ‘persistent absence’) and those classed as ‘severely absent’ (pupils missing 50% or more of school sessions) is still increasing.
The proportion of persistently absent pupils more than doubled from 10.5% before the pandemic in 2018/19, to 22.3% in 2021/22. The proportion of severely absent pupils increased similarly, from 0.8% in 2018/19 to 1.5% in 2021/22.
What accounts for this dramatic increase in school absence?
These statistics cannot be explained by illness, covid related absence (as was speculated), or an increase in parents taking their children out of school to take advantage of lower holiday prices during term time (as many had wondered). Those percentages have stayed much the same.
It seems that the increase in absenteeism can be ascribed to what is being termed as Emotionally Based School Absence – this refers to children and young people for whom issues such as anxiety, panic disorder, and poor mental health generally mean that they struggle to cope with and attend school.
Let’s be clear – these children are not ‘truants’.
They want to be in school.
They want to be learning.
But, for many reasons, they cannot cope with the demands of school life.
Their absence is causing their parents distress, too, with many being fined for their child’s non-attendance. To improve the statistics, fines of £60 may be issued by the school and the county council after as few as five days of unauthorised absences, with a maximum fine of £1000 per parent per child.
Emotionally Based School Absence, or EBSA, replaces what used to be referred to as “school refusal’ – it has been renamed more sympathetically to recognise that for many children and young people, it is not a willful refusal to go to school.
It isn’t an ‘I won’t’ but an ‘I can’t.
What causes EBSA?
The reasons behind EBSA fall into three broad categories – those pertaining to the child, those attributed to the school, and those relating to their home or family circumstances.
Individual Risk Factors
Children who have experienced childhood trauma, or adverse events in their life are more likely to have problems with school attendance, particularly if such events go on to lead to poor mental health – commonly anxiety and depression – or to an inability to manage such big feelings and emotions. Children with diagnosed (or undiagnosed) special educational needs (SEN) such as those linked to autism, ADHD, dyslexia (and other conditions that impact learning and development) are also at higher risk of EBSA compared to those without such a diagnosis.
School Risk Factors
Within schools, issues such as the transition between a small primary and a large secondary school may be part of the problem; while for others, instances of bullying or difficult relationships with particular teachers may have an impact. Again, children with SEN (particularly those that might only become apparent at higher levels of pressure for academic achievement) are at higher risk of EBSA. They may also struggle with particular subjects, or face personal problems making or maintaining friendships within their class.
Home and Family Risk Factors
A child’s home life also has to be considered. Those who are young carers for parents or siblings are at higher risk of EBSA. Children experiencing high stress levels within the home, perhaps as a result of financial hardship, divorce, separation, bereavement or dealing with the poor mental health of their parent are also at a much higher risk of EBSA. Interesting, those whose parents had a poor school attendance record themselves are also at a higher risk.
Is Covid to Blame?
While we cannot blame the rise in EBSA purely on the impact of the covid pandemic, it has potentially had an significant effect on the development of interpersonal relationships for children and young people and has almost certainly effected their ability to build the resilience, self-esteem and the confidence needed to cope with change of all kinds. Lockdowns, school closures and the inevitable consequences of this disruption has no doubt accentuated this current EBSA crisis.
The multi-factorial root causes of EBSA mean that there is no quick, soundbite-worthy, media-friendly fix. Getting these children back to school will require a multi-disciplinary approach, with schools, local councils and families sharing the responsibility.
Frustratingly, there seems to be no clear framework or rationale aimed specifically at what the media is increasingly calling ‘ghost children’ – those registered at a school but receiving almost no consistent education due to their persistent or severe absence. These 140,000 ‘ghost children’ are probably in addition to those on the margins, who are sporadically attending school and are therefore receiving an education and support far less than ideal.
There are guidelines around minimising absence that schools are encouraged to follow, but these are not mandatory nor monitored. They include having a clear attendance policy, follow-up procedures, and a staff member responsible for championing and improving attendance.
The school’s governing body is expected to ensure teachers and senior leaders have been thoroughly trained in absence procedures and develop a school culture that promotes attendance. The local authority is also expected to have a ‘local transformation plan’ which sets out what they plan to implement to support their pupils with EBSA.
This well-meaning but vague and unenforced guidance means that county councils and local education authorities vary widely in their approach to EBSA.
Who is funding this?
No extra funding appears to be allocated to schools to comply with this. Already financially stretched schools are expected to tap into the general funding pot allocated to them as ‘pupil premium’ payments.
These pupil premium payments (around £1000 per secondary pupil) are on top of the general funding given to each school to operate and are designed to support disadvantaged children further. This is defined as those eligible for free school meals, assessed by looking at the family’s situation and finances, including any benefits received.
While such children ARE at higher risk of EBSA, 12% of children receiving pupil premium are persistently absent compared to 9.2% of non-pupil premium children. Using pupil premium payments to mitigate increasing levels of EBSA runs the risk of diverting attention and resources from an already disadvantaged demographic of children!
Additionally, while the payment is aimed at intentionally improving a child’s attainment in education, schools are free to use their pupil premium funds in any way they choose. This means they can fund staff training, offer pupil counselling, hire extra teaching staff, run breakfast clubs or sports groups, purchase equipment…..whatever they decide. There is no mandatory auditing on how effectively this money has been spent, and schools are not asked to offer proof of success in improving achievement, specifically for these vulnerable pupils.
All this varied funding, complicated accounting and relative justification mean that, in practice, many schools do not have the resources they need or would like to stem the rising tide of EBSA.
This has meant many children need to be referred to additional resources outside the school system, often Child and Adolescent Mental Health Devices, or CAMHS. For most local authorities, their CAMHS is already over-subscribed and underfunded, with long waiting lists for assessment and support. Appointments are allocated on a priority basis with the most severe and at-risk seen first.
At the risk of sounding cynical, my local authority defines “support” as “having had at least one contact with an evidence-based mental health service”. This definition of ‘support’ does not necessarily include ongoing support and treatment.
And this is why private therapy services such as Inspired To Change are involved.
Parents are desperate to help their children and get them back into school consistently because they recognise that future success, as evidenced by GCSE results, depends on their attendance and achievement at school.
But it isn’t all about achievement and academic success. Children struggling with EBSA are, by definition, struggling to cope, feeling unhappy and frustrated, and at higher risk of poor mental health in the future. No parent wants to see their child miserable, upset, guilt-ridden at their failure to please their parents and teachers and knowing they are falling behind further with each missed school day.
Faced with limited school-provisioned support, long delays for assessment at CAMHS, and no other recourse, more and more parents are looking at alternatives to traditional routes, and a Google search often brings them to us.
Solution Focused Hypnotherapy and School Avoidance
At first glance, solution-focused hypnotherapy doesn’t seem to be the obvious choice – what use is hypnosis in getting a child into classes?
But solution-focused hypnotherapy (SFH) emphasises learning to understand and influence how we cope with challenges. Far from the ‘sit in a chair and listen’ strategy of old-school hypnosis or the ‘you are under my control’ image of stage entertainment, SFH aims to help the client develop a solid grasp of how their brain and body respond to perceived threat or crisis, and, collaboratively, work with the client to improve how those responses control our reactions to situations.
By helping our junior clients understand how their brain responds to feeling threatened or ‘unsafe’ in school, solution-focused hypnotherapists can give them the knowledge and tools to build a plan to cope better. I help my clients to recognise that by making small stepwise changes to how they perceive, respond, think or behave, they can learn to feel more in control – able to deal with the demands of school in a way that works for them.
Additionally, solution-focused hypnotherapists are increasingly starting to go into schools and use the same ‘brain-based’ explanation to work with the staff, helping them to develop the inclusive and empathic school culture needed to support vulnerable pupils. Enabling the school team to build an appreciation that these children are doing their best, but that with the right approach, they can be gradually brought back into school classes.
The Evidence Base for Solution-Focused Hypnotherapy
In a pilot research study conducted by Inspired To Change, Northumbria Police ran a service offering SFH to serve police and support staff with poor attendance at work due to stress or mental health challenges. Over 12 weeks, 100% of staff who completed the study noted a significant improvement in their ability to cope with the stress of work, and 78% of those that took part reported having no clinical symptoms.
I believe that this study shows real promise for the use of SFH in schools, too, demonstrating how this modern, upbeat, brain-based therapy has the potential to re-engage a whole group of disaffected pupils, just as it has for the police.
In my practice, I have worked with young people (including those with additional educational needs, often neurodivergent) desperate to be back in school to get a good education but feel unable to cope with its demands. Little by little, they learn to strengthen their resilience and build resources for the future as they grow in confidence and develop their self-esteem – a part of my work I particularly enjoy!
But I would rather see more resources and support put into place within schools to prevent these difficulties in the first place, and I feel that SFH would be a practical, evidence-based addition to schools and mental health services alike.
Giving schools the funding they need to support all EBSA pupils would build a school system, culture and ethos that benefits ALL pupils (and staff!). Emphasizing problem prevention and building resilience at the heart of education would benefit all young people, leading to a more resilient workforce.
A workforce that functions at its best allows businesses and society to thrive – isn’t that something to champion?
About the Author: Claire Noyelle practices online and from her tranquil garden therapy room at her home in Bearsted, Maidstone East, in the heart of the garden county of Kent. Claire is a member of the Association for Solution-Focused Hypnotherapists, National Council for Hypnotherapy and the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council and a member of both the General Pharmaceutical Council and the Royal Pharmaceutical Society.
If you’d like to find out how hypnotherapy could help you or your child with Emotionally Based School Avoidance, get in touch with one of our Inspired to Change hypnotherapists and book your FREE initial consultation.
Inspired to Change Hypnotherapists are all recognised by the National Council for Hypnotherapy, the UK’s leading not-for-profit hypnotherapy professional association.
Find out how you can train as a solution focused hypnotherapist with CPHT