Kids need rules. (Simon Norfolk/PYMCA/Avalon/Getty Images)

January 16, 2024   6 mins

Lily was among the growing number of so-called ghost children — the ones who aren’t in school. I never met her; I only met her mother, Jane, because Lily didn’t feel ready to talk to me. Lily had been off school for several months, and Jane was worried about her becoming isolated, so she arranged for Lily’s friends to come over every week, and for Lily to go to drama classes in town. At home, Jane said, Lily drew and read books.

But Jane really wanted Lily to get some qualifications. She was 13, the age at which persistent absence starts to increase in secondary schools. And in a year’s time, her peers would be choosing their GCSE subjects. But Lily didn’t feel able to go to school. She wanted to be home educated. Unfortunately,  while Jane’s job as a web designer allowed her to work from home, and therefore keep an eye on her daughter, it kept her too busy to teach her. They needed the school to make more of an effort to include her.

The problem was, the school imposed expectations that Lily couldn’t meet. They wanted her in class with her peers, but Lily was terrified of being picked on by a teacher. Her fear gave her stomach aches and headaches. At first, she’d take days off to recover, but those days off turned into weeks off, until she wasn’t coming in at all. School said she could come in part-time, but teachers still expected her to keep up with the work and sit in lessons.

The authority that Jane exercised over her daughter was quite different from that of the school. She had always given Lily the space to be autonomous, to act according to her needs. Her parenting style was “child-centred”. Informed by attachment theory, “gentle parenting”, as it is otherwise known, tells parents to be led by their child’s stated needs — and is increasingly popular in the West. The rationale is that a calm and reassured child will be able to make good choices, observe boundaries and thrive in the world. You don’t give orders; you allow them to make choices. Rules are negotiated on an equal basis rather than imposed from above. Problems with behaviour reflect a problem with the connection to the caregiver: a child acting out only does so if needs have not been met, and the way to address the behaviour is to address the relationship first.

This approach seems idyllic when it’s going well. If things go wrong, however, parents end up feeling helpless. Many end up in a double-bind, knowing their child’s behaviour needs to change while believing that their child must not be forced into doing anything against their will. For Jane, it was inconceivable that she would pressurise Lily to go back to school — but that meant that Lily would only return if she wanted to, and she didn’t want to.

The school absenteeism crisis made the news last week, when Labour announced its plan to tackle a growing crisis. One in five pupils is persistently absent from school, a number that has doubled since before the pandemic, with many blaming lockdown for the spike. And while it was once linked to markers of poverty such as free school meals, to assume that this is simply a class problem would be misguided. Plenty of absent children come from middle-class homes. In fact, middle-class parenting philosophies seem to be contributing to the problem.

Taylor was also 13 when he stopped going to school. He became increasingly withdrawn at home, staying up all night on his phone or Xbox. He wouldn’t feel like coming downstairs for dinner, so his mother Luci took meals and snacks to his room. She knew it would be better for him to take part in family meals, but she worried that insisting would affect their relationship. She knew that he spent too much time on his screens, but she feared that taking his Xbox away would only make his mental health worse.


Taylor was starting to show signs of depression, and Luci was increasingly worried and frustrated — who was supposed to help him? Was it the school, or the local authority, or the NHS? In her view, setting rules at home was near-impossible, because she didn’t want to affect her relationship with her son — therefore, any change had to be facilitated from the outside.

It’s common to hear parents say that their absentee children can’t come to school. The relationship between “can’t” and “won’t” crops up a lot when we talk about school avoidance — and young people’s mental health issues more generally. And it has fundamental implications for the question Taylor’s mum often came back to: whose responsibility is this? If a child won’t do something that they are supposed to do, like go to school, it’s a problem that needs to be addressed with discipline. The responsibility is the child’s, and by extension their caregiver’s. If someone can’t do something they’re supposed to do, it’s not their fault. The system has to accommodate them: school needs to be more flexible, or homeschooling needs to be provided.

Many parents frame their child’s difficulties in terms of mental health: she is avoiding school because she feels anxious — and if I challenge her, her anxiety will only increase, and her behaviour will only get worse. Here, the lines between won’t and can’t blur. Anxiety thrives on avoidance; if a child doesn’t confront the challenges that school poses, they are likely to fear school even more, having been deprived of the opportunity to find out that it isn’t so bad.

School pastoral officers are endlessly infuriated with the effect of parenting on attendance. One tells me how pupils text their mums from the loos to say they are having a bad day, and some parents will drop everything to come and pick them up. There are options for struggling children, though: they can use their time-out card, or make an appointment to see the counsellor. But parents who get immediately involved undermine the work her school is doing to help kids settle. It’s understandable for them to find their child’s distress distressing — but sheltering them from the challenges will not serve them well in the long run.

When she tells them this, the parents will agree, and then they’ll do it all over again. Each of them, Kim says, knows on some level that their behaviour is causing problems — not just for their child, but for the school more generally. But they also see their child as vulnerable, as being an exception. This is the influence of attachment theory, which sees all children as fragile, and all discipline as traumatic.

And yet, attachment-based theories are starting to leak into schools. “Connection before correction” is now the most fashionable approach to discipline; it preaches that bad behaviour is an expression of unmet needs and staff need to make pupils feel emotionally safe before introducing any sanctions. Proponents of more traditional approaches, such as government school behaviour adviser Tom Bennett, are sceptical, expressing concern about the increasingly widespread belief that poorly-behaved pupils can’t help themselves — which stops teachers from using sanctions that work.

Indeed, replacing no-excuses behaviour policies with a theory that is its own tailor-made excuse for poor behaviour has not led to great outcomes. In Scotland, where this approach has been taken to its logical conclusion — a restorative approach that focuses on helping the offender process their emotions — a rise in violence against staff in schools has led to a near-doubling in payouts due to workplace injuries over the last year. Bad behaviour is not only contributing to Britain’s teaching retention crisis but also having deleterious effects on the nation’s most vulnerable pupils. Firm rules tend to make children with profound special educational needs feel safer, because they minimise the risk of other kids behaving noisily or aggressively. And each child who isn’t in school needs to be chased, checked up on, even visited at home — time-consuming tasks that can draw attention away from pupils who may need it more.

That’s not to say that all schools are pleasant, or that all children can manage mainstream education. Plenty have needs or disabilities that mean they simply can’t cope with environments or demands that others can adapt to. Increasingly, though, this category is expanding to include children who are avoiding school because it is uncomfortable or difficult — rather than impossible. Children depend on boundaries; under-18s aren’t legally responsible for themselves for a reason. Their capacity for decision-making, emotional regulation and self-control is still developing.

The official concern about children missing school is the effect it will have on their life choices, narrowing their options without formal qualifications. But arguably more important is what school teaches them about to get on in the world. And if we believe that making youngsters do things they don’t want to is going to harm them, they aren’t going to learn that. They need rules to be upheld and expectations to be consistent. It’s down to the adults to help the children grow up.

Kate Adams works at a school in England.