Parent groups are warning of a “tsunami” of crippling school-anxiety cases leading to persistent and debilitating absence from education.
There is no official data on absence due to school anxiety and many affected pupils are labelled truants but support groups are being flooded with calls.
And an education lawyer in north-west England says the pandemic has made an “unprecedented crisis” even worse.
The education department said it was investing £17m in school mental health.
Children with school anxiety may experience physical symptoms such as stomach pain, nausea and headaches before school or have immobilising anxiety, panic attacks or something that seems like a tantrum.
They may even threaten to harm themselves if parents make them go to school, and yet their parents can still be threatened with fines and court action.
Fran Morgan, whose daughter experienced school anxiety, set up support organisation Square Peg to help other families in similar situations.
“We are seeing a tsunami on the horizon,” she says.
The issue is poorly understood and often incorrectly labelled “school refusal”.
“It’s not about refusal – it’s not a child that won’t do something. It’s about a child that physically can’t,” Fran says.
“It’s a debilitating level of anxiety which prevents attendance and the consequences to families are catastrophic.”
Many parents are being prosecuted and fined under legislation put in place to stop parents taking children on holiday in term time.
“But it’s penalising all those parents whose children are stuck in the system,” Fran says.
“We know all the problems with the special educational needs and disability system, we know the problem accessing children mental health services – a lot of those children are the ones who are struggling to attend and parents are being penalised for that.”
Matty, 16, from West Yorkshire, missed 18 months of schooling, after struggling with his mental health and having panic attacks.
“I don’t think people understand it,” he says.
“If I broke my leg, people would understand it – but they don’t understand it because it’s not visible.
“I just didn’t want to go in – just like dread, almost, of going in.”
Matty’s mother, Heidi Mavir, says: “It was really tough for both of us, all of us really.
“He was desperate to go to school – he really wanted to be in school.
“He kept saying, ‘I’ll try again Mum. I’ll try really hard.’
“But I think what people don’t understand about mental health and anxiety in particular is, like any health problem, if you can’t do something, you can’t do something.
“No amount of trying to think yourself out of it will make any difference to that.”
Matty is now at a specialist school.
Sinclairs Law chief executive Mike Charles, a specialist solicitor in education law, says he is dealing with about 50 requests for help with the issue a week.
“We are facing an unprecedented crisis of proportions we have never seen in certainly my experience, spanning 30 years,” he says.
“School anxiety and generally the mental health of our children has been a massive issue for many years but it’s particularly more pronounced since the pandemic, because the impact this has had on children has undoubtedly affected their mental health in a very substantial way.”
Beth Bodycote founded the support group Not Fine In School nearly four years ago.
But over the year to September 2021, coinciding with school lockdowns and the pandemic, its membership grew by nearly 50% – to 17,924.
Increasing numbers of children and young people are struggling with mental-health issues, including anxiety, stress, and depression, but many schools are adopting a stricter approach to attendance, Beth says.
“For instance, we have seen families who had organised a temporary part-time timetable being told it is now no longer possible,” she says.
“Fines and court action remain a threat for many parents even though these punitive actions do nothing to resolve the underlying causes of absence from school.
“There needs to be a move away from strict blanket policies about attendance and behaviour, to adopt a much more flexible and child-led approach, especially for children and young people who are struggling.”
Parents are often asked to provide evidence of mental ill health causing absence – but a GP’s letter is often insufficient.
And many families may still be waiting for mental-health support or have had it refused.
A Department for Education official said: “In exceptional circumstances, head teachers have discretion to authorise absence – and fines should only be used as a last resort.
“Where a pupil does not attend, the school, family and council should work together to agree a plan for attendance, because the classroom is the best place for their education, development and wellbeing.”