LifeLine Projects

Absenteeism: the legacy of lockdown

March 19, 2024

Educational neglect. Emotional-based schools avoidance. School refusal. Non-attending. Persistent absence. Serious absence. Missing.

It’s often said that the Inuit have dozens (or more) different words for snow, because they have a lot of it. We, however, seem to have a lot of different names for those repeatedly absent from school. What then does that say about the state of school absence in England?

Is this to be the legacy of three national lockdowns and a worldwide pandemic?

I’m sure a lot of parents would agree that raising a child over the last five years has been a real challenge, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. Even though it was certainly a tough time for us all, there’s a little part of me that misses that period of intense family time. The pandemic changed my family as it changed many other things at all levels of society—some good, some bad.

The pandemic was such a major event, it was like an earthquake. But an earthquakes is not a single impact—it’s a series of intense vibrations that come in waves. The waves, or aftershocks, that come later are less noticeable as they tend to be less destructive. Unfortunately, aftershocks are just as deadly.

When the third and final COVID lockdown in the UK ended in July 2021, everything was meant to go back to normal. We were hopeful and welcomed our changed world—the new normal.

Common predictions made of the post-COVID world was that everything would become contactless—new technologies would re-invent how we interact with our families, our friends, our communities. We would attend all our events online, AI could take the place of the GP for appointments, and remote learning would become the norm.

What wasn’t predicted was the long-term impact that lockdown would have on young people, particularly in regard to their mental health, or how the focus on digital learning isolated them even further from their communities.

The alarm bells should have gone off in 2021 when YoungMinds reported that 67% of survey respondents believed that the pandemic would have a long-term negative effect on their mental health. The report also recommended making wellbeing a priority in school catch-up planning and ensuring local charities and youth clubs, which provide vital early mental health support, survive the economic impact of the pandemic. A 2022 NHS report stated that 61% of 11- to 16-year-olds with a probable mental disorder were less likely to feel safe at school, and that they were also less likely to report enjoyment of learning or having a friend they could turn to for support.

I took my child out of school a year after the lockdown was lifted. She was really stressed about being back. The waiting time to see the school counsellor was months away as she wasn’t considered an urgent case. I got in touch with CAMHS and I was informed that my child’s condition wasn’t serious enough for her to get registered.

In a survey by youth mental health charity stem4 in 2023, it reported that 84% of young people aged from 12 to 21 said that they had avoided a variety of situations that make them feel anxious and uncomfortable in the past year. For 29%, this includes going to school, college, university, or work.

When school absences increased parents were blamed and parents blamed schools. Amanda Spielman the Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills, stated in 2023, “the social contract between parents and schools has been fractured by lockdowns and closures.”

I don’t blame schools or parents for young people not returning to school. They adapted as best as they could under difficult circumstances. When the lockdown was over, they thought everything would return to the way it was before. There was no extra budget to support schools or young people. Schools felt letdown as did parents. The only place young people now felt safe was at home with their family who helped them get through the pandemic.

What young people want
Someone to talk to 60%
Someone to listen to them 47%
Help with their feelings 46%
Help with their problems 43%

From SW!TCH Minds Evaluation, 2022, Rachel Dunford Consulting

A more recent report from 2024 by the Department for Education reports the estimated absence rate in secondary schools in England is currently 14.7%. It’s been years after the final lockdown, and we are still living through the COVID aftershocks. Young people were protecting themselves the only way they knew—by avoiding what they saw as the cause of their distress; by not attending school. What they needed was not just a well-rounded system of support but someone they could trust and talk with. Young people have emerged from lockdown as its victims—isolated and not knowing who to turn to for help.

The pandemic is long gone now. We are well into the ‘living with it’ stage, but some are not ‘coping with it’. Schools are unable to respond to the absenteeism crisis by themselves. We need a partnership approach that can draw together schools, parents, specialist agencies, and solution-focused charities. Together, we need to design packages of support that ease young people back into society. And while these young people often need specialist support, there are also many families that just need support in general, wherever they can find it.

LifeLine is one of those local charities which provide vital early mental health support. Across our programmes, we offer both young people and their families the assistance they need to help them re-integrate back into school and re-engage with their community.

Through SW!TCH, we support young people to form meaningful relationships with a trusted adult, expand and improve their social networks, and help them find their purpose through positive structured activities. We also provide community support networks, particularly when dealing with youth violence, school exclusion and mental health. This usually involves coordinating activities with family members, schools, health professionals, Local Authorities, the police and local businesses.

The most important thing we do for young people is listen, improve their wellbeing and increase their resilience.

What schools think
0 %
Thought that SW!TCH had been a success
0 %
Would recommend SW!TCH to other schools
0 %
Said that students were helped to form trusting relationships with others
0 %
Said that students were helped to feel safe and supported
0 %
Said that students were happier and more confident

[LifeLine provide] a safe space for [students] who are struggling a bit and want someone to talk to for half an hour. That genuinely is how I see it. A lot of provision complicates matters and, actually, children just want someone a bit closer to their own age to talk to. It’s not a counsellor they require… it’s someone who gets them and let off some steam and that’s what I see [SW!TCH] offering.

From SW!TCH Minds Evaluation, 2022, Rachel Dunford Consulting

If you know someone that is struggling, if you can’t get your son or daughter to school, if you are home schooling due to a lack of support, we can help you.

Our trained and qualified Youth Development Workers deliver targeted group activities, both physical and creative. They are held in local community settings to give young people a positive and safe space to improve their wellbeing, learn new skills, and make new friends.

Our weekly one-⁠to-⁠one mentoring sessions give a young person the opportunity to build trusting relationships while gaining confidence. We help empower young people discover a sense of vision for their lives, understand their identity and be empowered and comfortable in their own skin.

The SW!⁠TCH Futures team is currently supporting young people in schools and on the streets of Barking and Dagenham, Havering, Redbridge, Newham, and Tower Hamlets.

Want to refer a young person?

Know someone in need of help?

Whether you’re a parent, school, or other organisations, simply fill out our referral form to get a young person help.

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Nathan Singleton

Chief Executive Officer
Nathan is passionate about improving the lives of young people and their families. Nathan draws from the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” He believes community is the component that is missing in the modern western society and the key component that would benefit young people. Nathan believes we are there, not just to help others but to support them to become agents of change within their communities.

These articles may contain testimonials by LifeLine staff members and service users of our programmes and/or services. These testimonials reflect the real-life experiences and opinions of such staff members/service users. However, the experiences are personal to those staff members/service users and may not necessarily be representative of all staff members/service users of our programmes and/or services. We do not claim, and you should not assume, that all staff members/service users will have the same experiences. Individual results may vary.

Testimonials are submitted in various forms such as text, audio and/or video, and are reviewed by us before being posted. They appear in the newsletter in words as given by the staff members and service users, except for the correction of grammar or typing errors. Some testimonials may have been shortened for the sake of brevity where the full testimonial contained extraneous information not relevant to the general audience.

The views and opinions contained in the testimonials belong solely to the individual user and do not reflect our views and opinions. Staff members/service users are not paid or otherwise compensated for their testimonials.


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