When parents’ mental health affects pupils’ school attendance

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The mental health of our pupils is an acknowledged serious concern. It is not only their own mental health that affects their attendance, but also that of their parents. Headteacher Emma Meadus outlines how her school is addressing a growing problem.

Summary

  • Whatever a parent’s mental health needs, they are still required by law to get their child to school.
  • Parents need to understand their responsibility while also knowing where and how to access the support they need.
  • The welfare of children can suffer when a parent has mental health needs, and schools should be vigilant for this.

The pandemic has had many and far-reaching effects. The impact on mental health caused by lockdown and school closures has been well documented, even causing the government to invest £79 million in mental health services for children.

School attendance can often be hard-hit when children are affected by anxiety or depression, for example. In such cases, a school can support the pupil from within their own pastoral offer, or refer to local support services such as Healthy Child Teams and CAMHS. Non-attendance of a pupil for their ill-health, be it mental or physical, can be authorised by the school. But what should a school do when the mental health of a parent is the obstacle to a pupil’s attendance?

The Law

The law is clear: all parents have a legal duty to ensure that their child receives an education suitable to his/her age, ability and aptitude and any special needs. Failure to ensure a child’s regular attendance at school is a criminal offence. Whether or not the parent’s health issues are physical or mental, they are still expected to secure their child’s school attendance.

In the last couple of years, parents’ mental health preventing their children’s school attendance has been something many headteachers have been grappling with. Non-attendance due to a parents’ health problems is not authorisable, so schools find themselves in a very difficult position. Schools form close relationships with their families, often providing emotional support to them from staff who genuinely care about their wellbeing. It can feel callous to both parents and staff to unauthorise non- attendance, seemingly showing little sympathy or understanding.

Supporting parents

This is the quandary now facing school leaders: how to support the mental health needs of parents, while still upholding the school attendance laws of the land. One of the dilemmas schools face is the issue of timescales.

When improving attendance, timescales are relatively short. Typically, 10–15 days are given to parents to reach a determined attendance target before moving to more stringent measures, such as a penalty notice and ultimately prosecution in court. The trouble is, making a significant enough improvement on a mental health issue to have a lasting impact on attendance, can be a longer journey than school attendance rules demand. This leaves school leaders and attendance officers negotiating a very tricky path that has been increasingly challenging during the pandemic. However, the situation is not hopeless and there are things that school leaders can do to both support parents and improve attendance.

Meet up

It’s important to be honest and clear in all communications with a family about attendance. Letters are useful in evidencing the situation (see the ‘Example letter – Attendance improvement’ in the Toolkit) but it’s important to get some face-to-face time with the family if possible. Meeting and talking things through is more effective than a letter in showing families that you care about them, as well as providing an opportunity for them to open up more about their situation.

Clarify legalities

Be clear about the legal situation of non-attendance in these circumstances. This doesn’t mean that school staff cannot show understanding and empathy to the family’s situation, but parents need to understand their duty to provide their child with an education and what the local authority pathway is for following up non-attendance in school. 

Often, parents view their child’s non-attendance as having an unavoidable cause, i.e. their mental health crisis, and therefore think it should be authorised. However, recent school absence case law has held that non-attendance arising from parental mental health difficulties or a chaotic lifestyle should not be considered an unavoidable cause.

Advice and support

Provide practical advice and support for getting children to school. As previously mentioned, a person’s mental health recovery often does not align with local authority timeframes for improving attendance. Sometimes, parents cannot sort things out themselves and need external support, but are unable or unwilling to find it. Schools can step in here, signposting families to local support services and charities that can help.

Early Help and Healthy Child Teams can help with some of the underlying factors that may be contributing to a parent’s poor mental health, like routines and organisation in the home. Some local authorities can provide travel services for pupils, or schools may have funds to supply bus passes or taxis, if only for a short time to get the ball rolling.

Children’s charities in the local area often have volunteers who are willing to pick up and drop off children at school. These can be a real life-saver for families that don’t have support networks within their own family or circle of friends. Whatever plan is agreed, it is vital to capture it on paper to make real the expectations set out in the meeting (see the ‘Form – Attendance improvement action plan’ in the Toolkit).

Other services

When other services are involved, working together is critical for an effective outcome. Aligning your strategy so you are all on the same page saves time, effort and money. With parents’ permission, school staff can work with any mental health professionals involved with the family. Working together with health professionals in this way often leads to new avenues of support and information about local services which schools may not be aware of.

Supporting children

From the start, it’s essential that all staff in school make sure that when the pupil is in school, they feel welcome and supported. Their absence must never be held against them. All staff need to know this – office staff, TAs and teachers.

School leaders should make it very clear that staff must not show the child their disapproval or the inconvenience of them being absent. Seemingly innocuous remarks, like, ‘Off school again, were you?’, can be incredibly embarrassing and hurtful for the pupil, who does not need their worries adding to or any reason for them not to want to attend school.

Provide time and space for the pupil to talk to a trusted adult in school about their situation. A parent’s mental health issues can impact on their child, even causing their own mental or physical health concerns. Schools need to keep a watchful eye on such pupils in case their wellbeing does begin to suffer. They may need support from external services like Early Help or CAMHS.

If the welfare of the pupil is being compromised to a worrying degree by their parents’ mental health problems, safeguarding thresholds may be met and the designated safeguarding lead may need to make a referral to social services.

It’s fair to say that most parents who have chosen school-based education want their children in school, not at home, so in this respect, schools and parents share the same goal. Coming back to this point in conversations with families helps to keep things focused and remind all parties that they all just want the best for the children.

Toolkit

Use the following items in the Toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:

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About Author

Emma Meadus

Emma Meadus is headteacher of Coppice Valley Primary School and a member of the Red Kite Learning Trust.

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