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60% rise in parents and carers seeking help for school refusal from Action for Children’s Parent Talk

School refusal and anxiety has now become the number one issue for parents and carers seeking advice on Action for Children’s Parent Talk service.

Parent Talk offers free information, advice and support to parents and carers of children aged 0-19, or up to 25 where a young person has special educational needs. Last year, 6,869 parents and carers used its confidential 1:1 live chat service – which connects people directly to an experienced parenting coach for judgement-free practical help and emotional support. Its online articles also answer some of the most common parenting questions.

The ‘How do I deal with school refusal and school anxiety?‘ article was visited 50,000 times last year, a rise of more than 60% on 2021/22.

*According to the latest government figures, more than 140,000 children in England were severely absent from school for the spring term of the last academic year – nearly triple the number before the pandemic.

Action for Children’s research highlights that parents and carers seeking advice and guidance from Parent Talk on this topic are commonly facing three key barriers:

  1. They don’t know where to turn:    

The most common challenge raised by parents and carers whose children are refusing to go to school, or struggling with school anxiety, is that they don’t know where to turn for help. That can be because their child’s school is finding it hard to offer the support they think their child needs, or because they simply aren’t being offered any help at all.

  1. They struggle to access specialist support for their child:    

Where families are struggling with school refusal it is often related to challenges accessing specialist support. That can be mental health services, support for special educational needs, or early help services.

  1. Learning from home can help and hinder school attendance:    

Many parents and carers struggling with school refusal told us that Covid-19 lockdowns had an impact. For some parents, home learning was a lifeline, enabling their child to stay in touch with their schooling to some degree. For others, the option of learning from home only compounded their child’s reluctance to attend school post-pandemic.  

Joe Lane, head of policy and research at Action for Children, said:

‘High levels of absence from school in England is a huge problem for the children missing school and their families. As well as providing an education, schools can support children to develop emotionally and socially, promote their wellbeing and help keep them safe. Ultimately, that helps them to grow up to be thriving adults, better able to contribute to society and the economy.

‘Something that would help reduce absence is better support and advice for parents and carers struggling with school refusal and anxiety. It’s important the government follows through on its plans to roll out family hubs, which will support families, in all areas of the country, and it should boost the numbers of attendance mentors by making them a core part of new family help services.’

Case study:

Louise* from Essex has struggled to get the right support for her 15-year-old daughter, Charlotte*. ‘After the pandemic, Charlotte found the school environment very stressful, and ended up depressed and anxious. She missed a lot of school in the lead up to the summer holidays at the end of the last school year and refused to go back to school for most of September this year.

‘She’s on a waiting list for an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis, which can take up to 18 months. I asked the school for a reduced timetable in the meantime as I felt this would help her attendance, but they said they couldn’t do that without a diagnosis. We couldn’t get her a place in a special educational needs (SEND) school without a diagnosis either, so we were stuck.

‘We ended up remortgaging our house to pay for home schooling, but she found the tasks too easy and didn’t want to log on for the lessons. I’ve now paid for a GP letter to support our request for a reduced timetable just to be able to keep her in mainstream school. Once that was agreed, she went back to school for the first time in weeks. But that’s what I had asked for from the beginning. It feels like there’s no flexibility in the education system.’

Action for Children Parent Talk coach, Leanne Balloch, said:

‘There are lots of reasons children can feel anxious about going to school, including a lack of the right support for special education needs, bullying, falling out with friends, falling behind with work or something going on at home like a divorce or bereavement.

‘Understanding what your child is anxious about is the first step to getting them the support they need. When a child is refusing to go to school it can have an impact on the whole family. If the situation is affecting your mental health as a parent, it’s important to get help for you too.’

Parent Talk tips for coping with school refusal and anxiety:

  • Talk to your child about what’s worrying them, making sure you listen to what they say.    
  • Try to help them lessen their anxious feelings rather than fight against them.
  • Create a plan with your child to help them overcome their worries.
  • Take one step at a time and break the challenges down into smaller more manageable parts.
  • Talk to the school, ask for a meeting with the Special Educational Needs coordinator (SENCo) and your child’s head of year. Discuss possible interventions they can offer to support your child.
  • Work with other agencies such as your local SEND information and advice service, early help service or GP.
  • Build a record of evidence to help when you’re making a support plan.
  • Try to involve your child as much as possible and discuss what they think would be right for them.

For more help and advice visit Parent Talk.

*Names changed to protect anonymity

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