30th November 2022

New NHS Data shows school absence rates are higher in children with a probable mental health disorder

‘The lack of help with mental health has been the biggest thing that has stopped me and my friends from achieving what we want. It is difficult to access as we are not taken seriously, and when we are, waiting lists are so long’ – Girl, 17.  

In The Big Ask, the largest ever survey of children and young people in England, children were asked what they thought stopped young people being able to achieve their ambitions when they grow up. Mental health was the second most frequently mentioned topic and it was the thing that children and young people were the most likely to be unhappy with.  

Since The Big Ask, no matter where I have been or what issue I have been investigating, children’s experiences of mental health and the challenge of receiving appropriate support has been raised. This should not be surprising, children having good health is a fundamental building block that is necessary for all other things to go well. Despite the evidence of the crucial role that mental health plays in children’s lives, the data from the last few years has shown no improvement. Yesterday’s data, published by NHS Digital shows that in children aged seven to 16 years, rates of probable mental health disorder rose from 12.1% in 2017 to 16.7% in 2020 and have stayed there since. For young people aged 17 to 19 years old, rates of probable mental health rose from 10.1% in 2017 to 17.7% in 2020 and are now at 25.7% in 2022.  

The data also corroborates what I have found this year through my Attendance Audit, that mental health is a serious barrier stopping children from being able to engage fully in their education.  The survey found that school absence rates are higher in children aged seven to 16 with a probable mental health disorder, 12.6% missed more than 15 days of school compared with just four percent of those unlikely to have a mental disorder. 11- to 16-year-olds with a probable mental disorder were also less likely to report enjoyment of learning or having a friend they could turn to for support.  

This year I have been highlighting the crucial role that education plays in children’s lives. I have previously set out an ambition to see 100% attendance in schools and this data clearly shows that to achieve this it is not sufficient for only one sector to act. Attendance is everyone’s business and the entire system, within which health is a crucial partner, has a responsibility to see that all children receive wrap around support to ensure they are attending school regularly. 

It also shows that many children seek help in school, further confirming the importance of ‘early intervention’ and support in school for children when problems first start to emerge.  

1 in 4 11- to 16-year-olds accessed mental health and well-being support at school in the past year. The data also shows that 59.8% of children with a probable mental disorder reported accessing support in school.  Earlier this year, in my report, A Head Start: Early Support for Children’s Mental Health, children told me about the importance of receiving support in school, the place where they spend most of their time, and having trusted and valued relationships with peers and teachers. This support does not need to come from teachers directly, but from other school staff, from mental health co-ordinators, or from external mental health professionals. One 15-year-old girl said: ‘I get all the support from my 1:1 teacher, she’s helped a lot, she can contact CAMHs for me whenever I need’.  

It is clear that we need to act now to stabilise these growing rates of probable mental health disorders, and we need to particularly help older children who are struggling. We can begin to do this by ensuring all schools feel supported to adopt a whole school mental health approach and enabling school leaders to support their school’s most vulnerable pupils in partnership with local services. This is why I have called for all schools to adopt a ‘Whole School Approach to Mental Health’ and for Mental Health Support Teams to be rolled-out to every school by 2026/27, to provide an enhanced level of support and build the vital connections needed between schools and NHS specialist services. I will continue to champion improvements in children’s mental health services and hold the system to account through my Annual Mental Health Briefing, to be published early next year. 

All children have a right to good health and to an education, the services and systems designed to support them to realise those rights need to urgently address these barriers through a joined-up and holistic approach.