‘It broke the link’: how the pandemic disrupted children’s relationship with school

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Kirsty O’Connor/PA</span>
Photograph: Kirsty O’Connor/PA

Anne’s daughter is just nine, but feels constantly overwhelmed by school. Like many children, she found the pandemic very difficult, her mother explains. “She would stop talking for periods of time – we’d find her curled up and feeling low. I don’t think she’s ever really recovered from that.”

The nine-year-old struggled with returning to her primary school, and Anne has become increasingly concerned about her daughter’s mental health. “In school holidays, she’s a different person – there’s a lightness and fun about her. But the shutters go down when it’s time to go back to school,” the 53-year-old from Bristol said.

Anne says she does not think “there’s been any real acknowledgment of the trauma” with which the pandemic burdened some children.

“This is a really large part of their lives and it’s been completely turned upside down. Then they are thrown back in and expected to get on with it.”

I don’t think there’s been any real acknowledgment of the trauma that children have gone through.

After the mother spoke to the school about her child feeling down and unable to concentrate, it agreed to allow her to spend Friday afternoon in a different environment. As a stay-at-home parent, Anne says she is “fortunate” to be able to provide flexibility, and her daughter now ends her weeks at a forest school: “She was absolutely thrilled. She was just relaxed – there was no pressure to do things and it was led by her.”

Anne is one of scores of parents who shared the reasons behind their child’s absences with the Guardian, in light of the rising number of pupils missing school. One in five pupils in England were reported as persistently absent during the last school year, with Covid and other illnesses identified as the main causes. The proportion of children off due to illness was almost twice the rate seen before the pandemic.

But Rachel de Souza, the children’s commissioner for England, recently also told the education committee that schools are experiencing “a huge amount” of absence on Fridays in particular – a pattern that did not exist before Covid.

Persistent absence – defined as missing more than 10% of classes – has always been an issue, particularly among pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. But in the 15 years that Steven, 41, has been a secondary school teacher, he’s never seen it this bad.

“We’re currently dealing with student absence on a whole new level,” the teacher from Cambridgeshire says. Whereas before the pandemic, it might have been one or two students in each class, he says around a third are now “almost always” absent from lessons.

He attributes this change largely to the pandemic. “It broke the link of normal expectations and social norms – it was just an expectation that everyone came to school,” he says, adding that Covid saw whole classes sent home if a student had symptoms. “It really disrupted what was normal. Some students have slotted back into school but it seems like a lot have had so much disruption they haven’t [gone] back to how things used to be.”

We’re dealing with student absence on a whole new level.

Staffing cuts are exacerbating the problem, he says. The school used to have an attendance officer, but “like so many other jobs in school”, they were never replaced after retirement.

The teacher also reports a rise in parents asking staff to provide resources for their child to learn from home, often citing anxiety and exam stress – something extremely rare before Covid. “Our view is we can’t do that unless there’s a medical reason. You want to help, but don’t want to normalise the situation. It’s also an additional workload placed on teachers.”

While De Souza connected the pattern of Friday absences partly to parents’ remote working, the committee also heard that mental health issues, disadvantage and unmet special educational needs and disabilities were significant factors behind increased absences.

By Friday she is usually just wiped out.

This was echoed by some parents who said that their child’s special educational needs, and a lack of support, meant they were unable to cope with attending school without breaks.

Mary’s 13-year-old in Warwickshire is one such case. Mary says her daughter, who is autistic, has “struggled with severe anxiety for the last few years, culminating in ongoing difficulties in attending school”.

“Often this may fall nearer to the start of the week, due to the change in routine, or sometimes nearer the end of the week after masking her emotions and anxiety for several days,” says Mary, 43, who had to stop working to care for her daughter.

“Masking is helpful for schools as it means the child presents as ‘fine’ – but it means huge meltdowns once at home. It got to the point where she was physically poorly from the effort of masking.

“If we’ve done anything on the weekend, she says, ‘I need a day on my own, I can’t go back to school.’ By Friday she is usually just wiped out by the whole week.”

But some schools are embracing a new approach to the school week. Part of the reason part-time charity worker Lucy Allwright, 39, chose her five-year-old’s primary school in London was its flexible view towards children’s learning. “There’s a focus on children’s emotional wellbeing – they have a say over what they learn,” she says. She stresses that her ability to “not work on that day is very privileged”. “We should live in a world where we all have that option.”

The independent, charity-run school offers parents the option of home schooling once a week: on Fridays, Allwright keeps her child off school. “We often do activities – some weeks it’s reading, crafts, sometimes we go for walks, to the local museum or farm. Sometimes, we meet up with other school friends who don’t go in on Fridays and do activities.”

By the end of the week, Allwright’s five-year-old is often tired and grumpy. “It’s nice then that the weekend is calm,” she says. “I’m glad we have this buffer – as a family it’s easier to manage those emotions. We expect our kids to just be OK.”

She says the pandemic played a role in her decision to send her child to a school with a different approach. “[It] made us rethink – how can we spend more time together as a family?” she says. “I liked that children could say they needed space or a break. It’s based around the idea that there’s more than one learning environment.”