Almost three in 10 secondary pupils are avoiding going to school because doing so would make them anxious, a new survey has found.
Across the UK, 28% of 12 to 18-year-olds have not attended school over the last year for that reason, with experts warning that many stayed away because they would have felt unable to cope.
The findings, in a survey undertaken for the youth mental health charity stem4, suggest that poor mental wellbeing is a a big reason for the post-Covid surge in school absenteeism.
Dr Nihara Krause, the charity’s founder, urged schools, the NHS and ministers to increase support for anxious and distressed under-18s because “emotionally based school avoidance” is leading to pupils being off for long periods, disrupting their education and putting huge strain on families.
“School and the challenges it sometimes poses can increase anxiety in some young people, making them feel overwhelmed and unable to cope.
“Emotionally based school avoidance is a very worrying, growing phenomenon. It is different to school absence due to truancy. It is when a child or young person experiences extreme anxiety or distress relating to attending school. This fear can be so great that they avoid going to school.”
Krause, who has developed five apps to help troubled young people manage their mental health, said that 24% of those avoiding school said they did so because of family difficulties, 18% due to bullying or friendship issues and others because of exam stress.
“These findings are very alarming as they show the far-reaching impact untreated anxiety and other mental health difficulties can have on a young person’s life.
“What can start as a few days off school can quickly spiral into persistent absence. Without specialist support, which is both expensive and time-consuming, some children and young people will have their education, and through this their life chances, significantly impacted,” she said.
In the representative sample of 1,025 young people, 48% said they were suffering mental health distress and had anxiety, depression, an eating disorder or other diagnosable condition. Among them, 50% had missed school because they were too anxious to go in.
The findings come amid acute concern among schools, parents and ministers at school absenteeism. For example, one in 10 pupils in England in their GCSE year were absent in the last school year – 70% more than before Covid struck in early 2020.
The former shadow mental health minister Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, who led a Commons debate last week on children’s mental health, said the survey had uncovered “an epidemic of unhappiness that is keeping children away from the classroom”.
To address it, she said, “we need specialists in schools, a recruitment drive to fix chronic staffing issues in mental health services and work undertaken to enable young people to access support in their communities.”
Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “Schools have seen more children struggling with their mental health in recent years, especially since the pandemic, and this impacts not only their learning but also their attendance and behaviour.”
He urged ministers to ensure that every school had a mental health support team – only 38% of those in England do so – and that all schools and colleges could provide counselling.
Prof Sir Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, has told parents that children with mild to moderate anxiety should still come to school because prolonged absence can make them worse. The government has unveiled plans for attendance hubs and attendance mentors to tackle the problem.
A government spokesperson said: “Attendance is vital for a child’s wellbeing, development, and attainment and that is why we have launched a national campaign to support persistently absent children back into school.
“This campaign is backed by the launch of 18 new attendance hubs, increasing the total to 32, to support 2,000 schools on top of £15m to expand a pilot mentoring programme.
“Alongside this, we are boosting mental health support for children in schools, including by offering senior mental health lead training to all schools and colleges by 2025, extending coverage of mental health support teams to at least 50% of pupils in England by the end of March 2025, and providing £2.3bn a year for NHS mental health services to reach an additional 345,000 children.”