Conservative Education Secretary Gillian Keegan has said that “Tackling attendance is my number one priority”, with Department for Education data showing that one in five children in England are persistently absent from school, a figure which has doubled since the Covid pandemic. Unfortunately, this priority has manifested in an insulting government campaign, demanding that parents send their children to school even if they are feeling worried, anxious or worse.


Of course, there is little debate surrounding the idea that attendance, in most circumstances, leads to better educational outcomes. Evidence shows that those students with the highest attendance gain the best GCSE and A Level results. However, there is little significance in great academic results if it comes at the heavy cost of greatly harming children’s mental health, potentially leading to the development of lifelong issues.


I know this all too well, as halfway through my final year of secondary school I reached a crisis point in my mental health. The exhaustion of the constant anxiety I had to endure since leaving primary education, attempting to fit into a school environment that prioritised results over general happiness, eventually proved too much to bear 5 months before my GCSE exams. My attendance reached a low point of around 50% until I was finally put into a separate part of the school, designed to support struggling students. This far more relaxed environment allowed my needs to be more readily met and, ultimately, helped me achieve four grade 9s and five grade 8s in my GCSEs.


Sadly, I know that there would have been many students in my position who, because their schools could not offer support in the way mine did, would have been forced out of education. This is ongoing, with one study saying that 92% of children with school attendance difficulties were neurodivergent, and many (including myself) were autistic. Further research from The National Autistic Society shows that only one in four autistic students feel happy while at school. The government’s relentless, tone deaf attack on school attendance directly targets neurodivergent individuals and ignores the lived experience of so many people who, like me, struggled within the education system.


Perhaps instead of shaming parents and children for low attendance, the government should look more into the chronic underfunding of children’s mental health services. These services, such as CAMHS, are overstretched to the point that young people throughout the country are waiting years for treatment. Austerity cuts have led to reductions in the number of highly skilled staff and the early intervention and community programmes that had been removed have not been adequately replaced. Rising poverty levels, cuts to benefits and the cost-of-living crisis will only exacerbate the number of young people with mental health needs – government statistics already show a 25% increase from 2019 to 2021. Attendance counts, but mental health matters more, so maybe the government should avoid playing the blame game and end this shameful attendance campaign.