We need a proper plan to deal with anxiety about school – not a hardline approach

·3-min read
‘It can be debilitating even if they and their children are lucky enough to have supportive schools’  (Getty Images)
‘It can be debilitating even if they and their children are lucky enough to have supportive schools’ (Getty Images)

Parents groups have described it as a “tsunami”. I’m talking here about school anxiety, and the anxiety it causes parents confronted with it.

It can be debilitating even if they and their children are lucky enough to have supportive schools, schools which are alive to the problem and willing to support families dealing with what is sometimes unhelpfully described as “school refusal”.

But not all schools are like that. Parents can and do end up facing prosecution and fines under legislation that was put in place to prevent them from taking children out of school to take advantage of cheaper holidays in term time.

Children inevitably have their problems amped up when this happens, especially if their mothers and/or fathers are on low incomes.

It is hard to imagine a worse way to deal with the problem. What are parents supposed to do when faced with it? Are they expected to physically force their children into their cars? Do they have to drag them down the street amid tears and recriminations, while the neighbours look on and tsk from behind partially drawn curtains? If either of those are even possible. Teenagers can get very big very quickly.

Please. If only the people who insist it’s just a matter of clipping them round the ear and hauling them in could themselves be clipped around the ear and sent into the social media equivalent of a quiet room. Maybe someone could set one up. It’ll probably be full of MPs after, what, ten minutes?

The Department for Education has said that it is pumping £17m into mental health in response to the issue being raised, which looks like a lot of money but is, in reality, the financial equivalent of a sticking plaster.

Take it from me: trying to access support from local authorities and Childhood & Adolescent Mental Health was a bit like attempting to free solo your way up the Matterhorn in a pair of old trainers even before the pandemic. The resources allocated were painfully inadequate. Now you’re expected to do it barefoot while wearing nothing more than an oversized t-shirt with one arm in a sling.

Those supportive schools I mentioned are capable of providing crampons, rope and clothing. This I also know. The climb is still desperately hard. But you can make it. Unfortunately, they too are under pressure. Just ask the staff.

Of course the pandemic has taken the ground out from under the nation’s children. How could it be any other way? Why aren’t we doing more to talk about the problem? Of course fears, concerns and insecurities, which can be very high among school age children at the best of times, have been turned up to 11 on one of Spinal Tap’s amplifiers.

What’s needed is more support, not pressure and penalties. Over to Nadhim Zahawi, the new headmaster at the Department for Education.

It must be comforting to him that scoring a marginal C- would generally be seen as a dramatic improvement over his predecessor, who set the bar dreadfully low. But the nation’s stressed out kids, and their parents, deserve a lot better than that.

Here’s how to start. Issue some guidelines suspending any question of fines, the imposition of which was of questionable value before the pandemic.

Then come up with a plan.

Tour a few schools that already have them in place. Don’t listen to those downplaying the problem and calling for you to act the Equalizer before Queen Latifah took on the role and played it more empathetically than previously. Put the pathetic little culture wars the government you’re part of is ordinarily fond of to one side. Do the right thing for a change.

You’re seen as a safe pair of hands from your time as vaccine supremo. Showing a little compassion and addressing this issue with a degree of sensitivity would make you eligible for the sort of grade you’re supposed to tell the kids to reach for. The sort of grade that’s been in dreadfully short supply on the government benches of late.

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