Schools do not need to routinely seek medical evidence to authorise short-term pupil absences that result from mental health issues, according to new government guidance.
It comes as a report on the wellbeing of children and young people found the level of probable disorders has remained at “elevated” levels since the pandemic, and warned anxiousness increased in pupils of all ages last year.
In advice on dealing with absences caused by mental health issues published this morning, the Department for Education (DfE) reiterated that schools are expected to ensure regular attendance.
But it added that there was no need to “routinely” ask for medical evidence to support an authorised absence for mental health reasons.
This is because medical professionals like GPs are “unlikely to be able to offer such evidence to support one-off absences related to mental health”.
However, in instances where children’s mental health causes them to be absent in the long-term, or repeatedly, it “may be appropriate” to seek medical evidence.
This is so schools can assess whether the child requires additional support to attend more regularly or whether the illness is likely to prevent the child from attending for extended periods, the DfE said.
Part-time timetables can help ‘reintegrate’ pupils
In “very exceptional circumstances”, temporary part-time timetables can be used to help those with mental health issues to “reintegrate” into school.
However, the guidance said schools should maximise face-to-face school time “as much as possible”.
“It is important to recognise that, in many instances, attendance at school may serve to help with the underlying issue as much as being away from school might exacerbate it,” it states.
“A prolonged period of absence may heighten their anxiety about attending in future.”
Schools should also mitigate absences by implementing “reasonable adjustments” to alleviate specific barriers to attendance.
This could involve a “trusted” adult periodically checking how the pupil is feeling, allowing them to access a quiet space at break times or providing access to additional educational support and tutoring.
Plans to improve attendance may also involve referrals to in-school or external professional support, such as counselling services, mental health support teams and school nursing services.
But leaders have warned that support from mental health support teams is not being rolled out fast enough. The teams are only due to cover 35 per cent of pupils by this year.
Offer remote education in ‘exceptional’ cases
When using part-time timetables, remote education can be used to help pupils stay on track with the normal education they would normally receive.
But this should only be considered where pupils are well enough and able to learn.
The DfE has said in previous guidance that this should be part of a plan to reintegrate them back to school and should only be used as a short-term solution.
Concerns about young people’s mental health have been growing in recent years, with heads fearing the pandemic has exacerbated already rising problems.
Leaders warned last year that their pupils faced lengthy waits to access external mental health services, with schools increasingly providing services to those with “lower-level needs” to plug gap.
The DfE guidance said schools were “not expected to diagnose mental health conditions or perform mental health interventions, but they are expected to work to ensure regular attendance for every child”.
Almost 1 in 10 report low happiness
The DfE has also published its latest state of the nation report on children’s wellbeing, which warned almost one in ten young people now report low happiness with their health last year.
The rate has steadily increased in recent years, from 5.2 per cent in 2019 to 6.8 per cent in 2020, and then to 8.9 per cent last year.
Although wellbeing on most measures “remained consistent” during the 2021-22 academic year, anxiousness among both primary and secondary-age pupils “appears to have increased and is higher than in 2020-21”.
The report also pointed to previously released NHS Digital survey data, which showed that rates of probable mental health disorders have continued to increase since 2020.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT school leaders’ union, said the “extremely worrying findings” chimed with the experiences of his members.
He said heads had “seen the damaging impact of the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis on children exacerbate long-standing concerns around young people’s wellbeing and mental health”.
Whiteman called for the rollout of mental health support teams to be sped up, and said government must invest in counselling services in all schools.
“School leaders and their staff work tirelessly to identify mental health needs and support children’s well-being, but they are not mental health specialists and they need to be able to draw on the expertise and support of specialist services.”