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Poor mental health is the top reason for student absence, say colleges


The impact of declining mental health and the cost-of-living crisis on student attendance has been laid bare in new research published by the Association of Colleges (AoC).

The survey, conducted by AoC in March, asked English colleges to select the top three reasons for poor student attendance in the 2023 autumn term. Around 68 colleges responded to the survey – representing a third of all colleges in England. 

The majority (88%) of respondents selected poor mental health, almost double the percentage (50%) which chose it as one of the top three reasons pre-pandemic in 2019/20.

Other than general illness (62% of colleges selected this for 2023/24, and 60% for 2019/20), students prioritising paid work was the other most common reason for student absence from college. This, too, has increased from pre-pandemic numbers: with 50% of colleges selecting engagement with paid work as a reason in 2023/24, almost double the 26% that selected it for 2019/20.

Other issues listed as contributing towards student absence were transport challenges and caring responsibilities. Around 29% of colleges selected transport challenges in 2023/24, compared with 12% in 2019/20, and 12% of colleges selected caring responsibilities in 2023/24 compared with 15% in 2019/20.

Education secretary Gillian Keegan has said that improving attendance is her number one priority, following stagnating numbers since the pandemic. The Department of Education (DfE) introduced new data collection and attendance hubs for schools in January 2024, but there is no specific focus on further education.

On mental health, the DfE appointed Polly Harrow as the first Further Education Student Support Champion in November, provides guidance for colleges through eight principals for a whole college approach to mental health, and is proving grant funding for colleges to train senior mental health leads, among other pockets of support. There is a 16-19 bursary in place designed to support disadvantaged students.

However, there is no specific focus from the government on mental health, cost-of-living or transport support for college students as an approach to improving attendance.

Research shows that young people’s mental health took a hit during the pandemic and continues to decline. An NHS England report in 2023 found that 20.3% of eight to 16-year-olds had a probable mental disorder in 2023. Among 17 to 19-year-olds, the proportion was 23.3%, while in 20 to 25-year-olds it was 21.7%. Data from the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) in November 2023 found that almost three out of five (57.6%) therapists working with students in further and higher education reported an increase in stress related to study over the past year.

There is other evidence which also shows the cost-of-living crisis is having an impact on attendance. A report published by the APPG for Students, Impact of cost of living on FE Students, found that one half of those in paid employment surveyed increased their hours due to cost-of-living pressures.

Train strikes and cuts to public transport are thought to have had an impact on students, as public transport is key for students who can’t drive or don’t have access to cars. Analysis from The I in March found that 16 million miles of England’s bus routes have been axed. In a bid to balance their finances, councils across the country are cutting SEND funding, which often includes subsides to local transport which supports vulnerable students to get to college. 

Colleges are experts in student support, and the survey shows that leaders are responding with a shift in who monitors attendance. Many colleges indicated that attendance is the responsibility of all staff, while others have increased the number of staff with specific responsibility for attendance. In 2022/23, 35% of colleges said they had 11 or more staff with responsibility for attendance, compared to 25% in 2018/19.

The majority (93%) of colleges utilised existing college behaviour and attendance policies to tackle poor attendance, 90% phoned students, and 76% used counselling services.

Overall, attendance has remained relatively stable over the past four years at around 85%, though 16 to 18 and adult attendance has dropped slightly. In comparison, the attendance rate across all schools in the week commencing 25 March 2024 was 91.7%.

Catherine Sezen, Director of Education Policy at Association of Colleges, said: “This data is alarming, but sadly, unsurprising. It shows the perfect storm of a number of things in our society which are then impacting on our students: the increasing number of college students who are dealing with ill mental health, pressures from the cost-of-living crisis which sees them need to prioritise paid work, and cuts in public services like transport which students rely on to get to college. 

“Like school, attendance at college is vitally important to ensuring students have the best chance of succeeding both at college and in life beyond it. There are things that could be put in place to better support students who are facing these barriers to good attendance.

“It can be simple things like information sharing: for example, if schools shared information with colleges about attendance as students move from one to the other, it would enable colleges to support students appropriately from day one.

“However, there are also systematic changes needed: we have urged the government to fund colleges to develop and deliver a whole-college approach to mental health and wellbeing, ensuring services are inclusive and sustainable, as well as aligning the systems and partnerships within education, health and employment to support the transition and experience of students throughout education into work. We have also repeatedly called for the pupil premium to be extended to 16 to 18-year-olds to support those who are disadvantaged.

“Without additional funding for mental health services in colleges, and cost of living support, colleges will be limited in what they can do to support students who are facing barriers to attendance.” 

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