In the 2022/23 academic year, 28.3% of secondary school pupils were persistently absent. Huge numbers of children are unable to access full time mainstream school for a multitude of complex reasons.
There is growing consensus that this is an issue that is not going away and affected schools, parents and children are under intense pressure as a result. Much has been earnestly written about this crisis and the need for action and major recovery and catch up plans and how vital it is that we get back to how things were pre-pandemic. The media has fuelled unhelpful polarisations here that keep everybody stuck: it is the fault of feckless parents or snowflake children or teachers that are too soft or, or, or…
When children don’t want to go to school most of us buy into the widespread assumption that improving their attendance is the answer, a notion that has been heavily promoted by the current children’s commissioner. It offers a neat ‘solution’ for everyone invested in ‘solving’ this problem.
Sometimes it’s the answer and sometimes it isn’t.
This is because, in the words of Stephanie Sewell, school as we know it makes no sense in the minds of more and more of our young people. Or, for that matter, in the minds of the teachers leaving the profession in droves.
For many children, school IS the problem.
1.4 million children sought mental health support in 2022. Half of the 10,000 15-16 year olds surveyed by The Edge Foundation see school as something to ‘get through.’ while others who had left mainstream school were mostly ‘thriving.’
Some children in families I’ve worked with this year are so terrified at the prospect of going to school that they curl into a tight ball in a corner for many hours in the morning, until the threat passes. Or pick at their skin. Or soil themselves rather than risk leaving their bedroom.
Local authority interventions to improve attendance can do more harm than good. One parent told me, apologetically, that their anxious child doesn’t like the ‘weird’ man who comes to their home to ask questions about what they don’t like about school and then doesn’t know how to respond when the child writes ‘everything.’
Of course, more than one thing can be true. Many children and young people are very happy at school. Many are well and able to attend school every day. Many thrive in a school environment. For many, good school attendance is a protective factor for their mental health and wellbeing. For some children from poor backgrounds, good attendance at school improves their life chances.
A child’s school distress has a ‘devastating’ impact on parents’ mental health. Despite the increasing prevalence of families struggling with this, often parents feel alone, ashamed and convinced that they’ve failed. Parents tell me their own need to be perceived as ‘good’ and to comply with what professionals ask of them gets in the way of them acting in their child’s best interests. Taking a child off roll and going it alone feels too big a leap for many or is practically impossible.
More than one thing can be true. Families that are well supported by schools, often through a trusting relationship with a key adult, can work together to agree on gradual adjustments that enable children to return happily to school. There are professionals doing brilliant work supporting families affected by EBSNA.
Schools are under extreme pressure to meet attendance targets. With so many children missing lessons, the curriculum pressures mount up too. Asking more of teachers is unfair – 78% of them already experience mental health symptoms due to their work and over 40,000 have left the profession in the last year alone. There is little capacity within schools to meet the needs of individual children and teachers sometimes tell me, in voices of quiet concern, that particular children are probably better off out of school.
More than one thing can be true. Some teachers cope well with the pressure and can’t wait to get to work each day. Some schools are well funded and well managed and retain qualified and experienced staff, increasing the chances of positive relationships with children and nurturing a sense of belonging for all.
More than one thing can be true.
Part time schooling, however, looks as though it’s here to stay.
Rebecca Leek writes compellingly of a ‘quiet asymmetry’ in our approach to children. We talk so much of the benefits of flexible working for adults but expect our children to spend many of their days in institutions that allow them very little flex. They were told they could learn at home during the pandemic and have often watched their parents’ working lives change to embrace working from home.
There’s no getting away from the fact that children are voting with their feet. It’s time for us to catch up.
What would it look like if we moved to a place of acceptance that allowed us to start focussing on the possibilities?
We could redeploy some of the energy currently spent trying to ‘get’ children back in the classroom and accept that some of them are better off spending more of their time outside it.
Children could be given more agency to make decisions about how and where they need to learn to enable them to thrive.
When children show early signs of EBSNA schools could intervene quickly and support low demand flexischooling as a reasonable adjustment.
Schools and parents could work together to co-create bespoke plans that better meet the needs of individual children without generating extra work for teachers.
Collectively we could recognise that many of our children are shouting from the rooftops that full time school isn’t for them and it’s about time we started doing something about it.
Flexischooling is already an available option and (thanks to the sterling work of ‘Flexischooling Families UK’ on facebook) we know there are over 280 primary schools that support it in one form or another. However, the DfE makes reference to it only in their guidance on elective home education and for this reason it flies largely under the radar of school leaders and families with children in secondary schools.
In a nutshell, headteachers have the discretion to allow children to attend school three days a week and receive a ‘suitable education’ at home on the other days. This can be an indefinite arrangement agreed between headteachers and families. It is not the same as a part time reduced timetable and should never be used to absolve schools and local authorities of their statutory obligations to provide an education. Schools should record a ‘C’ in the register and have safeguarding responsibility on the school days only, although they retain full funding for each child. The onus is on families to approach the school with a plan, seeking support and agreement. Flexischooling contracts should be created with the best interests of the child at their heart. They can be subject to terms stipulated by the head (or in a flexischooling policy agreed by governors and trustees) and should be reviewed at least once a term.
More schools could be supporting more children to spend less time in school.
There are endless possibilities for how children can use their flexischooling days. They may need to rest and recover. They may spend valuable one on one time with a parent or grandparent. They may pursue an interest that lies outside the curriculum. They may attend a forest school or, for children at KS4, take advantage of state funded 14-19 provision in the local area. They may further their academic study, taking an additional qualification independently or attending an online school. They may volunteer in a charity shop or go to a farm or play with a pet or join with other home educated children for an outing or learn an instrument or go to the cinema or develop an app or bake a cake or build something or spend more time on homework, or, or, or…
Detailed testimonials from families have been collated by the Centre for Personalised Education and can be found here. When it comes to the benefits, there are recurring themes:
– Children who find the school environment overwhelming, or burn out towards the end of the week, are better able to cope;
– Attendance is good on school days because the child’s social and emotional needs are being met through the part time arrangement;
– Families feel a greater commitment to the school and sense of belonging because they are so grateful for the arrangement that enables their children to thrive;
– Many children have more autonomy on flexi days which fosters their intrinsic motivation and enables them to learn with more engagement and enthusiasm.
As one parent says of her bright and highly sensitive boys who ‘just about’ manages three days a week in school: ‘We are so very grateful that it is an option. I have no idea what we’ll do should it cease to be so.’
Thanks to research by the Relationships Foundation in 2022 we also know that flexischooling has specific benefits for children with a SEND profile but is routinely overlooked; their recommendation was that flexischooling ‘must be a widely recognised option for UK pupils.’
Are there barriers and challenges? Of course. Undoubtedly a spirit of courage and curiosity is required from headteachers.
There are questions around how schools can ensure equity of access to flexischooling arrangements, especially for those children who would benefit from part time school but whose families are not in a position to support at home. With a bit of energy and imagination, there are exciting possibilities to be explored here: redeploying staff in schools as Lydiard Park Academy have with their innovative School of Solutions, forming parent and teacher working groups to create a directory of funded options in the local area like this or creating time and space in school as proposed by Derry Hannam.
Although all recent Ofsted comments on flexischooling have been ‘very positive’, it would be helpful if the DfE introduced an attendance code specific to flexischooling so schools weren’t required to explain themselves to overeager local authorities.
It’s hard for heads to be brave about sanctioning less time in school for children when schools are subject to progress 8 accountability measures, although when around 30% of children gain fewer than five GCSEs and one in four children are missing more than 10% of their schooling, this becomes something of a moot point.
Flexischooling could be transformative for some of the children we are currently failing. We must face up to the fact that unprecedented numbers of our young people are unhappy at school and that, for many of them, this is a rational response to the school environment. Desperately anxious children required to attend school every day are not learning. Our dogmatic insistence that attending school will improve things for these children means that many reach crisis point and end up languishing at home for months, if not years, as the thresholds for support creep ever higher and vital services are stretched to breaking point.
The message these children hear is that they have failed. That they are making poor choices that will ruin their lives. In the meantime – these are things I’ve been directly told this year – the buck is passed from schools (‘our PA is below the national average so we haven’t really got a problem at the moment’) to local authorities (‘attendance needs to be at 30% before we can consider outreach support ’). Meanwhile distraught parents can be prosecuted when they prioritise their children’s psychological safety and refuse to drag them out of the door.
One fifteen year old I work with is too anxious to go to school, doesn’t meet any of the thresholds for support and is desperate to learn. Her school is in an impossible bind: to send work home for every child not attending would stretch staff to breaking point. Her family are in an impossible bind: they cannot afford the exam entry fees if they deregister and home educate. This child is now attempting to teach herself the KS4 curriculum using YouTube while the school and local authority send emails back and forth.
There is a moral imperative to do school differently for these children. Through flexischooling there is also a commonsense and practical option available, right now, to every school in the land.
It allows for a gentle shift in how we do school. A quiet revolution. Creating space and time. Introducing lightness and possibility when a child is suffering rather than responding with threats and judgement. Allowing children room to breathe, to be heard, to connect. Collaborating in order to understand what our children and young people need to thrive and learn. Connecting with others to take advantage of opportunities in the wider community. Alleviating pressure on teachers and school leaders and giving them more freedom to make decisions that are truly in the best interests of children. Compassionately and constructively working with the families who know their children best to improve the wellbeing of all concerned.
Flexischooling. Parents can ask for it and headteachers can support it. It’s an available option in the best interests of some children. We owe them a duty of care to consider it.
Sarah Sudea is the founder of Finding the Flex, which supports families and schools in co-creating flexi-schooling arrangements that better meet the needs of children. You can follow Sarah on LinkedIn and Twitter: