A teenage mental health crisis is being ignored
Student absence is a hidden crisis across the Western world, and recent analysis from TES has also revealed the scale of the impact this is having on exam year groups. Year 11s missed 75% more lessons over the autumn and spring terms this academic year than pre-Covid levels. The absence rate among disadvantaged Year 11s is more than double their more privileged peers’ rates; other surveys suggest that up to a third of disadvantaged 15-year-olds have been persistently absent this year.
According to the Centre for Social Justice, just under two million school pupils (roughly one in four) are classified as ‘persistently absent’, meaning they have an attendance rate of under 90%: double pre-pandemic levels. The number of pupils who are ‘severely absent’ — spending more time out of classrooms than in them — has also risen by 134%, and is now the equivalent of around 140 schools.
This is obviously concerning given that schools are bracing themselves for a return to pre-pandemic grading this summer, but it will also have longer term implications: around 90% of young offenders and 59% of prisoners regularly truanted from school.
The reasons behind school absence are complex, ranging from socioeconomic factors to winter illnesses; at one point coughs, colds, flu and scarlet fever wiped out a third of my Year 8 class simultaneously in December. Then there’s the huge increase in the number of families removing their children from the school register and choosing ‘home-schooling’ instead. Families are not obliged to tell the local council and so no-one knows what the true number actually is: without this safeguarding oversight the likelihood is that many vulnerable children will be falling through the net and may be receiving no schooling at all.
But what is different this time round is the sheer prevalence of anxiety among young people. According to Mental Health Foundation, 27% of 13-19 years olds surveyed said that they felt “anxious, nervous or on edge” all or most days in the past fortnight, while the charity Mind says that 67% of young people have reported being absent from school due to their mental health. As a teacher and tutor I have seen first-hand how this vicious circle spirals: students retreat to the comfort and safety of their homes and online worlds, and the longer they are away, the harder it is to return, as they, and sometimes their parents, normalise this avoidant behaviour.
It also remains unclear how many pupils simply didn’t return after Covid either because they were too disengaged or too far behind. Lockdowns made it all too easy for children to fall off the radar — they were detrimental to students’ academic, physical and mental wellbeing too.
This makes it all the more frustrating that the government is prioritising out-of-touch policies like introducing Maths to 18 rather than helping overstretched families, schools and charities get students back into school. Lockdowns’ lost students have even been nicknamed ‘ghost children’, but perhaps ‘ghosted-children’ would be more appropriate: it’s not so much that they are invisible, but continually ignored and overlooked. We should be doing everything in our power to find them.