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(UK) "Ghost children": Chronically absent special needs students; "system so broken"

Aug 12, 2022, Irish Sun: GHOST KIDS Rise of Britain’s ghost children who are so ‘frozen in fear’ they can’t attend school and parents ‘failed’ by the system

Layla* watched in horror as her 10-year-old son had a panic attack at the school gates. Mason* was in tears, shaking and hyperventilating while pupils and staff looked on helplessly.

It was then that Layla, who had spent hours persuading him to leave the house to attend school in the first place, decided enough was enough.

“The school secretary was trying her best to tell him just to come in, but the more she said it, the more distressed he became,” she remembers.

“I couldn’t bear it any longer and I said: ‘I’m taking him home. I’m not putting him through this.’ “Mason whispered: ‘Thank you,’ and his gratitude made me feel terrible. I should have listened to him from the start and kept him at home.”

Since that day in April 2021, Mason, who is autistic and also has ADHD and OCD, has only been attending primary school four days a week, and single parent Layla, 47, says that although life is not without its challenges, it feels more manageable.

Mason, now 11, had been finding the rigidity of school increasingly difficult, particularly since lockdown gave him the experience of being at home. And he is by no means alone.

A recent report by the Children’s Commissioner Rachel de Souza revealed that there are around 1.8 million children who are regularly absent from school in England – double the number since before the pandemic.

“Persistent absence” as it is labelled, means missing more than 10% of school. Of these, an estimated 135,000 so-called “ghost children” have failed to return to school at all after lockdown, with authorities having no idea where some pupils now are.

But this startling statistic doesn’t begin to tell the full story and it’s far more complex than a simple truancy problem, not least because of the mental health crisis, with waiting lists for CAMHS (child and adolescent mental health services) hitting almost three years in some parts of the country.
Campaigners say the main driver behind school avoidance is the fact that many of these children have special educational needs (SEN) and are trapped in an inflexible “one size fits all” education system.

It is estimated that around 15% of people in the UK are neurodivergent, a variation in brain function that can include autism, ADHD and dyslexia, and parents of these children describe having to fight for them at every stage – first for a diagnosis, then for support.

Then they find themselves battling schools who are bound by fixed ways of teaching and disciplining that allow little flexibility to accommodate children who find that difficult – or even impossible – to cope with….

“The system is so broken.”

Layla first noticed Mason’s own differences when he was around six and started talking about his “urges”, which they now recognise as intrusive thoughts, although the school dismissed her concerns and said he was “just a bit quirky”.

But when he started hand clapping – also known as stimming, a behaviour typical to autism – she fought for a diagnosis via the NHS, before eventually obtaining one privately.

During lockdown, Mason began suffering with high anxiety and chaotic emotions, and trying to homeschool him involved hours of high-stress wrangling.

Layla herself suffered a breakdown under the strain and her relationship with Mason’s father collapsed. She eventually had therapy for PTSD.

She says: “I was an empty vessel by that point and had to choose where the tiny percentage of what I had left went. Obviously I chose Mason.

“We’ve had some absolutely hellish days and I’m exhausted from it – physically and mentally. There have been lots of tears, but I know now that battling with Mason to get him into school every day was making things worse.

“After the panic attack, school accepted the four-day week and so far they haven’t punished us for not attending. But they’ve gone down as ‘unauthorised absences’ and that sort of language has really damaging connotations.”

Louise Parker Engels, co-director of Define Fine, a group providing parent-peer support for attendance difficulties, says it goes way beyond children just not fancying going to school.

“A lot of neurodivergent children want to do well at school and they try to fit in,” she says. “But it’s traumatic for them to be in a sensory environment that overloads them, while being punished for things that they really can’t help. …

“They’re also often very vulnerable to bullying, because they maybe don’t read social cues as well and they can seem a little bit different, which makes them an easy target.

“So they’re not learning or enjoying being at school – they are enduring it. We see a lot of schools insisting the children are ‘fine’, but the reality is, they are frozen in fear and it’s not sustainable.

“And sooner or later, these children can’t do it anymore.”…

Since being permanently excluded for “low-level disruption” during his first term at a new senior school in 2019, Ben has mostly been at home, and copywriter Kate and her husband Rob*, a transport worker, have been pushed to the brink.

She says: “Ben would get told off for fidgeting and tapping and they clearly didn’t know how to handle children like him.

“He’d end up getting taken out the class and he’d shut down because he didn’t know what else to do.” …

“Behaviour policies need to be altered for neurodiverse children and we have to ban exclusions for behaviour, particularly if it’s a child who has a special need. It achieves nothing,” she says….

Around 1.8 million children who are regularly absent from school in England


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