Impoverishing parents is not the answer to missed school attendance: letter to Tobias Ellwood MP

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Dear Tobias Ellwood,

I was a social worker before I had to resign to care for my son, who has additional needs and high anxiety, and I’m currently on Income Support and Carer’s Allowance, as he struggles with school attendance. I have encountered parent blame, particularly prior to my son’s diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) with demand avoidance [not being able to do certain things at certain times. Ed]. I am able to advocate for my son’s needs and so I’m not asking for any personal intervention, but so many families are suffering because of the current system.

Michael Gove said the idea to dock the benefits of parents whose children miss school should be “reconsidered” as part of a drive to reduce crime and improve attendance. I disagree.

Please don’t reply that there are exceptions for certain circumstances, because even children expressing suicidal ideation often do not meet the eligibility criteria for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), and those that do, face long waiting lists to be assessed. Neurodiversity is frequently not recognised by teaching staff – and why would it be, when special educational needs is not a mandatory unit for teacher training? The result is that parents are blamed for not giving boundaries and discipline, and for not teaching their children to be resilient.

You can’t discipline anxiety out of children who are dealing with mental health issues. It’s ‘can’t’, not ‘won’t’. Consider that an adult can, quite rightly, go to a GP and be signed off as unfit for work due to high anxiety and/or depression; whereas children are, it seems, expected to attend education full time regardless of poor physical health, mental health issues, or special educational needs. When did we start to punish children for their problems? When did school attendance become more important than a child’s well-being? The issue here is that 100 per cent attendance is framed as the holy grail, despite schools actually causing many of the difficulties in the first place.

Many children who are neurodiverse simply cannot function in the school environments that have been created. This is particularly true of secondary schools which have high numbers of students and confusing building navigation, combined with timetables that require transitions every 40 minutes throughout the day. Many children manage primary school due to the nurturing environment, smaller school size and an emphasis on wellbeing, but, sadly, they just can’t cope in the harsher conditions that they meet in the next phase of their education.

This is the reason that attendance drops in years seven and eight: children burn out very quickly in these circumstances. Parents are watching their vibrant, fun-loving, confident children disintegrate before their eyes. Children become too scared to leave their rooms, let alone manage to get into school. It very quickly develops into a school phobia. If you were arachnophobic and you were told that you had to work in a room full of spiders, I think you might be in ‘fight, flight or flee’ mode, and if you did enter the room, you’d be unable to work.

I am concerned about the practice of school staff ‘grabbing’ a child and manhandling them into the school building, which seems to be an accepted method of dealing with reluctant children and ‘over-anxious’ parents. I take issue with this, as school staff are generally not trained in restraint; and secondly, restraint should only be used when there is a risk to self or others, and not to force compliance. This is emotionally abusive and is certainly not going to build a trusting relationship for the child to enable them to cope during the school day. It also erodes the child’s trust in their parents, who are then not seen by the child as protective. One of the negative consequences of this can be violent and challenging behaviour in the home. Teaching staff must use relationship-building techniques to encourage a child and to give them confidence that they will have a voice, and that they will be able to feel safe at school. This is not a criticism of all school staff; most are excellent, and they do a fantastic job with limited resources in a highly pressured profession.

Some children cope well in any school, but for many the current school system is toxic. It does not nourish a child’s imagination and it’s impossible for many children to thrive in the environments that have been created. The tick-box exercises, tests, statistics and inflexible curriculum stifle any love of learning, and do not free up the teachers to do their job and use their expertise in creative ways. Teachers are not thriving in the current educational system either: their stress levels are high – and don’t even get me started on their low pay.

Children who are neurodiverse, or those with anxiety, are left behind and traumatised for life by their experiences in school in the UK, and this is not an exaggeration. Dr Naomi Fisher, Educational Psychologist and Clinical Psychologist discusses the failings of the current system here;  but we could look to the example set by Finland and other progressive educational systems and consider the success and the positive impact on children and adults who interact with it.

Even if parents are dysfunctional and/or lazy, who suffers if the child benefit is cut? The children. Stress in the household increases, domestic violence worsens, parental mental health suffers, children become malnourished or worse. Support and early intervention are essential; punitive measures are simply not effective. The UK is experiencing an unprecedented cost of living crisis and the last thing any government should be doing is to cut family incomes.

In proposing this policy, Gove and the government are wrong on every count.