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Not in School: barriers to school attendance

Zainab Shafan-Azhar

The Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition and Centre for Mental Health have sought to determine what is driving the rise in school absence in their new report, ‘Not in school: The mental health barriers to school attendance’.

  • Health inequalities
  • Hospital waiting lists

School attendance has been at the centre of policy and public debate in recent years, particularly since the Covid-19 pandemic. Currently, one in five children are persistently absent from school, and a further 150,000 children were severely absent in 2022-23, meaning that they were missing over 50% of possible sessions. But what is driving the rise in school absence?

The drivers of school absenteeism

It is perhaps no coincidence that school absence rates have risen in tandem with mental health problems in children and young people. According to data from NHS Digital, one in five children and young people aged 8 to 25 experienced a mental health problem in 2023. This is an increase from one in nine children aged 8 to 16 in 2017 and one in six in 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic has also exacerbated need with analysis suggesting that as a result of the pandemic 1.5 million children and young people under the age of 18 could need mental health support.

What is more, evidence suggests a link between school absence rates and mental health problems; in Autumn 2022, children with a mental health problem were seven times more likely to have missed 15 days of school than those without a mental health problem. Despite this, mental health has often been a missing consideration in the school attendance debate.

Our findings also found a range of wider barriers to children and young people attending school that are often ignored. This includes barriers experienced by children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), those living in poverty, those experience bullying or racism, young carers and care experienced children. We also know that these groups of students are also more likely to experience mental health problems.  

Whilst needs have been rising, children’s ability to access help and support has become increasingly challenging. Waiting times for support have been at an all-time high, and it is estimated that 75% of young people experiencing a mental health problem wait so long that their condition gets worse, or they are unable to access any treatment at all. Consequently, young people are unable to access the support they need, further exacerbating attendance difficulties due to unmet and unsupported need.  

Difficulties accessing support is particularly pertinent in the attendance debate, as medical evidence is often required to receive authorisation for absence by the school. It is often challenging for pupils with mental health problems to provide medical evidence. Without medical evidence, the absence will be classed as unauthorised and punitive approaches such as fines and sanctions may be used on the family instead.

What change do we want to see?

The Government has introduced a range of initiatives to tackle the attendance crisis, including attendance mentors and new attendance hubs. However, while these have the potential to bring about change, their success will be limited by not addressing the wider determinants of school absenteeism. As a result of this they are likely to fall short in supporting children and young people to get back into school.

We believe we need a new approach to school absenteeism, one that addresses the barriers to children attending school and makes sure that children get the support they need both inside and outside the school gates. This should include:

  1. Introducing a mental health code of absence to record absence for pupils with mental health problems.
  2. Improving the availability of mental health support through embedding and resourcing a whole education approach and funding the full national roll out of mental health support teams.
  3. Addressing the drivers of school absenteeism by taking action to address the social determinants such as poverty, racism, and discrimination to support children and young people to attend school.

It is imperative that there is an accessible and timely system of support around children and young people. There must be increased investment in NHS children and young people’s mental health services, greater support in the community through early support hubs and sufficient support within schools. The government must hear our voices and better support children and young people to not only attend but to thrive in school.


Zainab Shafan-Azhar is the Policy and Public Affairs Assistant at the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition. She produces parliamentary briefings and consultation responses, supports on report writing and manages the Coalition’s social media accounts and newsletters. Prior to this Zainab was studying for her BSc in Psychology at UCL.