We get reduced timetables wrong. Here’s how to get them right

Interpretation of the DfE’s attendance guidance too often puts the school’s needs first and fails to deliver what anxious pupils really need

Interpretation of the DfE’s attendance guidance too often puts the school’s needs first and fails to deliver what anxious pupils really need

2 Apr 2024, 5:00

When children are unwell and struggling to attend school due to anxiety, one of the approaches schools often take is to put them on a part-time timetable, for example as part of an EBSA pathway or within a pastoral plan. Sadly, the majority of such arrangements aren’t successful.

Too often, a part-time timetable doesn’t lead to the pupil’s return to full-time education in their original setting. More significantly still, rather than reduce the child’s anxiety level, it often increases it, worsens their symptoms and leads to traumatic consequences. This is because we’re still asking children to step into the fire. It’s less fire, but it’s fire nevertheless.

When a part-time arrangement doesn’t work, anxious children often end up being withdrawn from school altogether. This typically happens in desperation rather than as a parental preference for ‘elective’ home education – an outcome with huge implications for the whole family: relationships, jobs and financial security.

The current DfE guidance document, Working Together to Improve School Attendance, states that part-time timetables should be “in place for the shortest time necessary”. Following this guidance, schools tend to devise reduced timetables which last for six to eight weeks. Some settings overtly state that a reduction can last no longer than that. Sometimes, parents are told early on what will happen if the child isn’t back in school full time by a particular date.

Time, rather than the child’s needs, is too often the priority.

With a different approach, we could use reduced timetables much more effectively to support recovery – and save families a lot of suffering and despair along the way. They can work, and have been an important part of my daughter’s phased return to school as she has been recovering from the anxiety disorder that consumed her a year ago.

Here are three important considerations to make them work:

Give it time

Time limits and short deadlines are unhelpful – even counter-productive. Current guidance leads to arrangements which are far too short. There are no quick fixes with mental health, and we must take a much longer-term approach.

“The shortest time necessary” doesn’t have to mean six weeks. There is scope for interpreting this phrase in a way which benefits everyone. The concept of flexi-schooling deserves an article of its own, but the term is enough to convey the sort of disposition we might adopt.

Progress is not linear

Schools often appear to expect that attendance or engagement will increase in a linear way. Such plans might be well-intentioned but they make the arbitrary assumption that after an hour a day for one week, a child is ready and able to cope with two hours a day the following. This still makes time the main driver, rather than experience and the child’s sense of safety.

Look beyond timetables

It sounds obvious but part-time timetables aren’t in themselves a solution to the underlying factors behind a child’s anxiety. Sometimes, this truth gets a little lost. Professional assessments and support for the underlying causes of a child’s anxiety might be months or even years away. There’s no reason for schools to be accountable for backlogs in other services – or to make those the source of more anxiety.

My daughter is now thankfully healthier, physically and mentally. She still has anxious moments but she’s learning how to manage these feelings and she’s better able to cope in the world.

As she has recovered, her engagement with learning and her attendance at school have increased. She’s progressed from attending a gardening club last April to a single art lesson in September, to fifteen lessons over four days this week. It’s not been just about increasing lessons though. We’ve slowly and cautiously reintroduced assemblies, breaktimes, clubs, trips and tutorials – the wider school experience.

It’s been a team effort. We’ve had professional support and ongoing help from our local EBSA team. We work very closely with her school to review progress and plan next steps. Sadly, our journey and success are untypical of families in our situation.

It doesn’t have to be like this. We can do things differently – and we should.

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