Invisible Children

Over recent months I've heard the government media talking about the "invisible children".  The children who haven't returned to school since the pandemic.  The children who often aren't actually receiving any state funded education because the system isn't really making them a priority.

Not long ago I heard an interview with the Children's Commissioner for England, Dame Rachel De Souza who said that she felt 100% of children should be in school.  Note she said school and not education. Whilst I understand the sentiment behind the words I feel the wording needs to be amended to education.  All children deserve an education, however, the current education system in the UK is a one size fits all approach that doesn't work for many children.

One thing I've come to realise over the course of parenting Katie and Pip is that we are conditioned from a very young age to see our lives as running a specific timeline. A trajectory of life you might say.  Quite basically from the moment we’re born our lives are mapped out. We start pre-school and then move on to infants/primary/junior schools.  From there we move to secondary school and then college or an apprenticeship.  Many then either go on to higher education or into work.  They will then follow the expectation of a career, marriage and family, and then watch the process start all over again with their own children. We’re so conditioned to expect these things that it’s hard to see beyond them. And why would we? It’s only when circumstances force us to look at life in a different way that our eyes see things differently. 

Currently, in the UK, over 2 million children are regularly missing school. There are around 14 million children under the age of 18 in the UK which equates to around 14.29% of UK children regularly out of school. Katie and Pip are two of those children. 

When you hear about children missing education in the media you might think that the education system is working tirelessly to help support this children to either return to education or enable them to receive an education in a different way. You’d be wrong. Neither Katie or Pip have received much education since before the pandemic. From how it seems to me, the UK Government issues directives to Local Authorities around attendance expectations. As with most things, the government generally takes a carrot and stick approach (ie “do this or else”) to school attendance. This expectation gets passed down to schools who are under huge pressure to tick the attendance register to say the children are in school. It’s all very quantitative. The qualitative approach might ask if those children in school are happy, settled, relaxed and mentally able to learn? But it doesn’t. Whilst individual teachers might care about those things the “system” doesn’t appear to. The system tends to just blame parents for children’s non attendance in school. Parent blaming is a tried and tested way to ensure the finger points well away from the school environment’s failings. None of this actually helps understand why a child isn’t in school of course. The education system is not child centred. 

When your child regularly refuses to go into school it’s very disempowering for both the child and their parents. Nobody really knows what to do. For a child experiencing School Based Anxiety the carrot and stick approach stops working quite quickly.  Most children don’t actually want to be somewhere where they don’t feel safe and comfortable (most adults don’t either come to think of it). 

The first question to ask is what is the child experiencing during their school day? Are they struggling to learn due to a learning challenge? Is there a need from a diagnosis not being met? Is there a diagnosis missing? Are they being bullied? Is there a sensory overwhelm? Do they feel safe and secure away from their parents or caregivers? Is the school able to meet their emotional and educational needs? Understanding why is important.

Sadly by the time most children disengage from school the damage is already done. They have already used up all their coping strategies. They have already shown resilience beyond what most adults would be capable of. They are burned out and exhausted. There will always be a percentage of children for whom parents and caregivers are not supporting their education but the majority of children to disengage from school due to their needs not being met in school.

The education system in the UK is a bit of an old dinosaur now. It’s way past its sell by date and not really fit for the purpose of modern day requirements. Class sizes are far too big. Teachers have far too many restrictions and targets placed on them regarding the curriculum. Schools have antiquated ideas about managing children. Have you ever watched the children lining up and being frog marched into school? In an average class the teacher probably only actively connects with around 12 of the 30 children in the class during each lesson. That’s not fair on the children and it’s also not fair on the teacher. The school system still teaches children to regurgitate information, most of which they will never use practically again. Many children cannot see how education is benefitting them. For many children it’s all just too chaotic and noisy. Even in many SEN schools the school day is the same format, the same start and end time, the same chaos, the same infrastructure. 

For many of us with children who have diagnoses and are struggling in school we seek the holy grail of documents called the Education Health Care Plan (EHCP). In my head I hear an angel chorus of singing when I think of how allusive such a plan is and how much hope we attach to it. On average it takes at least two years to be awarded an EHCP. The school has to prove that it’s already exhausted all it can do with its limited budgets and staff before a plan can be applied for. Professional reports are required to highlight the difficulties the child is having and to set out what additional support is required for the child. Waiting for the various professionals to assess the child and write these reports can easily take a year. During this lengthy wait, the child is not receiving the targeted support they need. Going to school gets more and more difficult. Often by the time the EHCP is granted (if it is granted first time and without a tribunal) the child has already disengaged and the expectations of the plan cannot be delivered. Even being able to access, where appropriate, a specialist education provision can often come too late due to the lengthy delays.

Once a child has emotionally burned out attendance starts to become more sporadic. Letters are sent home once attendance reaches below 90% (generally with veiled threats included about the impact on your child’s education). I’ve never quite understood how stressing a parent out can help motivate a child who is already stressed. All we do is subconsciously pass on our own stress to our child. Making a child feel guilty is not good parenting. I’ve heard of teachers telling pupils that they should come into school so that their parents don’t get sent to prison. I was told that Pip was enjoying his afternoons too much with our nanny when I was at work and if he was more bored he might want to come into school. Short shrift was given as a reply to that statement! Helping Pip engage with other adults and build his confidence is of vital importance and will support his ability to learn, not hinder it

For many years before we adopted Katie and Pip I worked within the education system helping young people who were struggling or who had disengaged. I had a fair understanding of what causes those difficulties before I became a parent and yet, as the parent, I have felt first hand how disempowering, frustrating and bewildering it is to navigate accessing support. As the parent of children on school role but currently out of  school I now have bizarre conversations with school around who actually has responsibility for my child during the school day. Schools are given loco parentis responsibility for children during the school day yet if the child isn’t in school and is home with their parent there is a grey area over who is actually responsible for the child during the school day. I have been trying to support interests and build in confidence boosting activities during the day, especially for Pip, and this leaves the risk assessments that schools normally do for activities in abeyance. We clearly cannot stay locked up in the house throughout the school day. Neither of our mental health and well-being would benefit from that. These grey areas are ones that many schools are no doubt facing and trying to work out how to show the local authorities that they are ticking all the right boxes regarding safeguarding but none of this is child (or parent) centred. I’ve spent years now constantly worrying over school and education; fighting and debating with a system that isn’t set up to understand or meet the needs of my children. 

We’ve had a few glimmers of something resembling light in the past few weeks. Pip now has a new tutor funded by school. She’s trauma trained and works with PACE and Pip immediately liked her. Pip is improving in himself since being medically signed off from school. He’s learning to play piano and has started showing signs of wanting to learn about things that interest him. He’s gaining confidence in himself and engages more readily with the school teachers who visit us each week to do the delightfully named safeguarding checks. Katie is still struggling with anxiety. She’s now started some medication to try and help. She’s meeting with her LSA at home once a week and her Occupational Therapy will finally resume this week at home. It’s all baby steps and I try to stay in the moment rather than projecting my thoughts and hopes much beyond the current day or week. What I do know is what they are getting currently isn’t enough. They deserve much more and I am galvanising myself to take on the next fight:


Education Other Than At School. 

A holy grail within the EHCP holy grail.

That’s a post for another time though. 

As a final thought I will say our children are not invisible in the way the media reports it. They are lost and invisible in a system that is underfunded, under resourced, antiquated, unable to meet their needs and mostly ignored. They don’t need to be that way. The education system needs to change to help our children access education in a way that meets their needs, not the needs of the government or the school system. The pandemic has left so many children disengaged and unsupported. Their parents are stressed, worried and fearful of the wrath of the schools and local authorities. Surely it’s time that we stood back and reviewed just what is going wrong and changed the system, not the children? It’s the system that’s failing, not the parents or the children, and in turn it’s failing our children.


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