Kieran is a tall, stocky 14-year-old. He likes being outside and fixing cars. He describes school as “like being in a prison”. He has always hated it — when he was little, his mum sometimes had to carry him in under her arm, but he’s well past the size where that was possible.

After an altercation with a member of staff in the summer term, he didn’t return for the rest of the year. Instead, he spent much of the time with his dad, a labourer who picks up jobs on farms and building sites, doing what sounded like back-breaking work from the time he would normally get up for school until long after he would normally get home. He loved it — he likes getting on and doing things, and being useful rather than being treated, however sensitively, as a problem.

Kieran is one of many such problems. And as more than 100 schools threaten not to reopen this term, their plight looks set to be ignored once again. One in four English children are persistently absent from school; one in 50 are missing more than half. Among pupils in years 10 and 11, a third  are missing the equivalent of at least one GCSE’s worth of school.

Often, these cases are referred to mental health teams like the one I work in, which were set up to address common problems around behaviour, anxiety and low mood with brief self-help treatments. What happens in practice, however, is more complicated: schools, faced with scant resources, often end up referring children out of a need to be seen to be doing something, and low attendance often features.

Kieran, for example, had an Education, Health and Care plan (EHCP) — the highest level of support for special educational needs — for dyslexia and ADHD. His mum begged his teachers to let him sit certain classes out, so he could focus on a handful of core subjects rather than skip school entirely, but there wasn’t much they could do — in the name of inclusivity, the school is expected to provide a full curriculum for all children, including those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

Kieran was, in effect, a victim of a doggedly one-size-fits-all approach which maintains that everything can be fixed with education. It started with Blair, who believed in sending half the population to university: his argument was that academically clever people went to university, so if everyone went to university, everyone would be academically clever. Britain’s next wave of reformers, Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove, held that a traditional knowledge-rich curriculum would impart more information and better life chances to English children. Pisa results indicate that it probably has, but that average contains multitudes, and some of them aren’t coming into school. And it isn’t just the children with diagnosed special needs that suffer — it can be a pretty bleak experience for those who simply aren’t academic, too.

Ella is 13 and softly spoken. She is in Year 8 and missed a lot of school last year. She gets headaches which were probably caused by anxiety — it is very common, especially in children and adolescents, for anxiety to manifest somatically in the form of physical aches and pains or nausea. If you ask Ella how things are going, she will reliably say that she is ok, home is great and school is tricky. She isn’t being bullied, and she’s too well-behaved to get into trouble — she just gets stressed out by school. Ella is in the bottom set for everything, and while the groups are smaller and the teachers do their best to make the work make sense, she knows she isn’t doing well at it.

Ella loved being at home in lockdown. She liked being able to do schoolwork in her own time, because it takes her longer to work things out than others. She liked being able to hang out with her cousins, and help out on her family’s farm. Like Kieran, Ella has a strong sense of her values and what she wants to do with her life. School is barely relevant to it.

A team like mine could work on some of Ella’s worries; helping to build up her confidence. But what you can’t cure therapeutically is the empirically observable knowledge that you’re stuck doing something you are bad at. If the core of your anxiety is a belief that you’re not good enough, there’s nothing more effective at feeding that belief than not being good enough at the only thing you have the opportunity to do for most of your waking existence.

In an under-resourced system optimised for academic exam performance, pastoral teams can do their best to find out about the interests and motivations of non-academic children, but they can’t rewire the curriculum. In response, activist groups, such as Not Fine In School which represents families of mostly neurodiverse children who are out of school, argue that the current model, far from being inclusive, is failing many children. They advocate for a less punitive approach to pupil absence — at present, local authorities can fine parents over children’s low attendance — and more rights for parents in determining the best educational provision for their children.

The preference of many children is to be able to self-direct with one-to-one attention when they need it. The obvious place to do this would be at home; but unlike the US, where a strong culture of home-schooling is has resulted in better outcomes than those of state-educated children, the Department for Education collects no outcome data for home-schooling families and the education establishment is, at best, sceptical. Moreover, there is very little support for families where both parents are working. Some US states, by contrast, help fund home-schooling with tax credits or deductions.

Instead, the axiomatic assumption in Britain is that school is best, and any misalignment with the school system is an individual pathology. We defer to the language of “anxiety”, which has become a catch-all term for all distress caused by an aversive experience. But this can be unhelpful for a number of reasons, especially where school avoidance is a feature: it can pathologise ordinary difficulties, undermining children’s self-confidence and self-efficacy; it can mistake the distress that many autistic children experience in the school environment for something that can be straightforwardly treated with exposure; it also assumes that the individual, rather than the environment, is the problem. 

We could, for instance, describe the frustration of being stuck in a lesson you are unable to participate in as anxiety, and we could do the same with the sensory discomfort of the classroom, but those aren’t irrational fears and they can’t be fixed in the same way irrational fears can. And even when those children are coping with the demands of being in the school environment, they tend to emerge with little to show for it. Pupils with an ECHP are working on average three years behind their peers by the time they leave school; only 13% of children with special educational needs leave with GCSE passes in English and Maths.

One way of looking at this is to see children who are statistically less likely to do well at school as voting with their feet and staying away. The education establishment would argue that this is precisely why it’s so important for them to be in school — to “close the gap” in their attainment compared to other children. But I am not convinced. In The Cult of Smart, the Left-wing writer and ex-teacher Freddie DeBoer argues that academic ability is largely heritable and that the increasing amount of pressure and money spent on trying to close achievement gaps have little impact. We justify wildly disparate outcomes in wealth and well-being as being merit-based — if you work hard in school, you deserve better in life — when the outcomes are determined more by luck than hard work.

DeBoer’s solutions include ditching the assumption, beloved of cognitively blessed elites, that academic attainment signifies moral goodness, and allowing children to opt out of the academic curriculum at age 12. David Goodhart makes similar arguments for the UK in Head Hand Heart, arguing that a cognitively minded ruling class has failed to take skilled manual labour and caring professions seriously. What do we signal about the work we value as a society when we tell children that the only things worth learning in their formative years involve memorising and decoding information?

In the current system, we pretend that everyone can jump through hoops of academic cleverness, which are the only hoops worth jumping through. When that doesn’t work, we pathologise the individual and blame the teachers, who should be able to skilfully engage all children in the class, no matter how large their spread of aptitude and interest for the subject.

Kieran and Ella have been having a miserable time in an environment ill-suited to their needs — it was that, rather than any irrational error of thought, that dented their attendance. The only thing they were taught was that they had failed.

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