Inclusion Now 64

Why Kids Miss School – BBC Panorama.

By Yewande Akintelu-Omoniyi, ALLFIE’s Office volunteer and Amelia McLoughlin, ALLFIE’s Policy and Research Officer

Head and shoulders shots of Yewande and Amelia, authors

On the 30 of September 2022, Panorama aired a documentary on the BBC called Why Kids Miss School, focusing on non-attendance and truancy in schools. ALLFIE’s Yewande Akintelu-Omoniyi and Amelia McLoughlan review the programme for Inclusion Now Magazine, from a perspective of inclusive education that is aligned to UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with a Disability.

The programme spoke to the current Children’s Commissioner for England, Dame Rachel De Souza, who stated that she wants every child to have 100% attendance at school and made a request to the UK Prime Minister to make this a priority. As an example of tackling school absence, the documentary showed Horizon Community College in Barnsley, dealing with non-attendance by phoning parents and driving door-to-door to students’ homes. The Commissioner was clear that poor behaviour should not be used as an excuse to not support children and young people, and that measures should be used/found to tackle any underlying causes for poor behaviour. The implementation of issuing fines to parents was also mentioned, but the Children’s Commissioner acknowledged that fines are only part of the solution.

The government’s own data shows that the attendance rate across the academic year to September 26th 2022 was 93.9%. The absence rate was 6.1% across all schools, with that figure rising to 11.6% in state-funded special schools due to authorised absences almost doubling.

The programme followed three young people in the UK, exploring their reasons for not attending school. 

Abbie from Sevenoaks had not attended school since January 2022. She has ADHD and Autism and restarted secondary after Covid restrictions eased. Abbie began to struggle with sensory overload on her return to school and was not sleeping properly. Eventually she was diagnosed with autistic burnout. Abbie’s school stated it did all it could, but Abbie expressed that school became too much for her.

Abbie’s parents both teachers who “know the value of school”, wanted her to return but saw the negative impact of the pressure she put on herself to try and return. They found her a small private school, which the Local Authority agreed to pay for, as they believed it could better meet her needs. The programme showed that Abbie made it through an hour on her first day at the new school. She reiterated her wish to return to school, when she has “enough energy for it” and had tried her best to socialise on her first day.

In the UK-first study published in Autism, researchers found that a staggering 43 per cent of those surveyed were persistently absent from school. Lead Researcher, Dr Vaso Totsika commented that while reasons for absenteeism vary, autistic students may be at a greater risk of missing days because mainstream schools are unable to provide the specialist support they need to succeed academically. Further studies have shown that persistent absence can increase the risk of dropping out of school by up to 28 per cent.

Bradley from London has been struggling with lateness and non-attendance due his Dad’s death last year. According to the Child bereavement Network, at least 10,000 children have been bereaved of a primary caregiver across the UK due to the pandemic according to research published in the Lancet in July 2021. And over 50,000 children have had a parent, guardian or carer die from other causes over the last 20 months.

The documentary showed Bradley making it into school almost every day, and said that the school said it was doing everything it could to support him. It had allowed Bradley to use a time out card to leave class when he feels overwhelmed. However, this did not always work out, as the documentary showed an argument between Bradley and his teacher about whether or not to use his time out card to go to the bathroom. Bradley mentions that sometimes people think he is using the card as an excuse to stay out of lessons.

Separately from the bereavement, Bradley has been supported in the school by an organisation called Football Beyond Borders for a number of years, and has begun writing music to aid in the processing of his grief as he finds it difficult to speak about. Bradley did not declare in the programme whether he was under SEND, but was seen going into a dedicated SEND classroom. This is not discussed in the programme and so it is unclear if Bradley was placed in SEND provision previously, or whether this placement was linked to the school’s bereavement support.

Later in the program, Bradley is unusually absent from school, and via information gathered from his classmates, it is revealed that the family had travelled to Sierra Leone in order to mark the one-year anniversary of his father’s death. The school seemed unaware of this, and any potential cultural and/or religious requirements within the bereavement process. Bradley and his family’s background was not explored in the programme, with his caregivers not featured as were the parents of the other children.

Statistics from 2019, show that 6% (896,000) of children under age 18 living in the UK were born abroad and more than a quarter (28% or 3,839,000) of children under age 18 living in the UK have at least one parent who was born abroad. These children have family connections and potential responsibilities oversees, and yet as evidenced by the documentary, schools are not necessarily being inclusive of these circumstances. In Bradley’s case, it was quickly resolved when Bradley’s family later contacted the school, and he attended when the family returned to the UK.

Mollie from Nottingham had non-attendance at school due to conflict with staff, students and repeatedly being sent out of lessons. However, Mollie and her mum state that she was experiencing consistent bullying, that the school failed to address the issue and did not manage the situation well. The school’s Ofsted report has rated them “inadequate” and specifically stated that bullying and behaviour were “poorly managed” by the school.

Research from the Department for Education looking at pupils in year 10 found that, 21% of children who had experienced bullying daily had been absent from school in the previous 12 months (three times more that those who were not bullied), girls were almost twice as likely to be absent because of bullying and almost a quarter children bullied often were most likely to be kept off school by their parents.

Mollie wants to become a sports coach, and volunteers with a local charity called Helping Kids Achieve. She said her experience has inspired her to be the “mentor she never had”. To achieve her chosen career, she would need to enrol on a college course that has GCSE entry requirements. We see her express doubt as to whether she will have obtained the required grades. Sadly, the link between bullying and academic performance is supported by numerous studies, including one commissioned by the Department for Education, that found experiencing bullying in a child’s teenage years has a negative impact on GCSE performance.

Later in the programme, Mollie picks up her GCSE results, confirming that she has missed the requirement by one grade in both Maths and English. However, after speaking with the College, she is accepted onto her chosen course with the offer of support to re-sit her Maths and English GCSE. The program concludes with her determination to make a success of her new life at college.

The issues outlined in this BBC Panorama documentary facing young people show that the education system needs a social justice and rights approach to stop Disabled children and young people being driven into segregated educational settings. ALLFIE believes that the UNCRPD will allow the education system to address the social issues that are currently in education. These don’t allow children and young people to be looked at as a whole person, to address the issues that they are facing at home and community, so their needs can be met in their education setting.

The program also did not look deeply enough at the barriers faced by Disabled children in school. For example, there was no mention of how they tried to support Abbie during her time at school, possibly looking at sensory or quiet rooms to help when she was feeling overwhelmed, to help not just Disabled students, but all students.

When schools start to think more holistically about these issues, maybe kids will be less likely to miss school, and we can have a more inclusive education system and practice.