The Department of Education’s strategy for improving school attendance came into effect from September 2022. The guidance is currently non-statutory, butt could become mandatory from September 2023.
The new guidance includes significant changes to the registration process, including an enforced 30-minute timeframe for student attendance to be recorded and the removal of secondary timetables that accommodate students with special needs. Its aim is to “maintain the same ambition for attendance and work with pupils and parents to maximise attendance”, leaving little space to accommodate students who face barriers to attendance such as school-based anxiety.
Students with special education needs are disproportionately affected by these changes. The risk of ‘school refusal’ for students with autism is 42.6 per cent in comparison to 7.1 percent for neurotypical students. The word ‘refusal’ itself is problematic, because it implies a choice. The reality is that students with school-based anxiety don’t feel able to attend school.
This applies to a number of our students, and the new guidance requires that they be registered as unauthorised absences, with vastly different implications to an authorised late attendance mark. Local authorities can take legal action through mandatory parenting classes, fines or even prosecution, subjecting parents who are already concerned for their children to further pressure during an already distressing period.
But there are ways that we can work within the framework of the new guidance to support those who struggle with anxiety and distress triggered by the school environment so that they can access their learning.
The first step is to identify specific times of day when students feel heightened levels of anxiety and to understand the root cause of these feelings. This enables us to develop appropriate strategies to support them. Typically we are able to do this before our students start at the school, and previous attendance records provide strong evidence.
Students who have had a negative experience
s of school may be distrustful of our efforts, and enforcing attendance may only increase their anxiety. Rebuilding trust is essential, and this starts outside of the school environment. Visiting students in locations where they feel comfortable removes one of the sources of anxiety, allowing the focus to remain on preventing that anxiety escalating into avoidance and, ultimately, poor attendance. It also means students feel safe and familiar with at least one member of the team. We organise activities with our art or occupational therapists outside of school to build on this approach too.
Investing time into building relationships with students, understanding their special interests, and listening to their needs is important to create a comfortable atmosphere where they can thrive. Ensuring school is somewhere they want to be can develop into an ‘irresistible invitation’ to attend.
One of the keys to success is to intervene before a pattern of absence materialises. We sometimes find our students feel anxious about how busy the main entrance is at the start of the day. The new 30-minute registration window makes managing this more complicated. However, there are work-arounds.
For some who struggle with enclosed spaces or large groups, we have had some success with using an alternative entrance, and with later arrivals prohibited under the new guidance, we’ve begun inviting them to start earlier instead.
For those whose anxiety is harder to accommodate, therapy can be key to breaking down barriers. Accessing support from an NHS therapist can be a frustratingly lengthy process when school attendance is at stake. We’ve found on occasion that a clinical assessment from a private provider often helps our students and their families access support more quickly.
On the subject of families, the post-Covid work-from-home culture presents an opportunity. Students are often significantly more relaxed when a parent or guardian is nearby, and we’ve found providing spaces for family members to work from the school premises helpful.
Working together, we really can remove the barriers to attendance facing students with school-based anxiety and improve access to learning. And that’s a worth doing, whether the new guidance