Through delivering our outreach and training services to learners, schools and families we’ve noticed a consistent barrier for autistic learners and their network: Emotionally Based School Avoidance (EBSA). EBSA has been called many things, including school refusal and persistent absence. The key feature is that the child is unable to go to school due to emotional or wellbeing factors. They may feel too stressed by the school environment. Or their confidence and self-esteem could have been impacted by events within the school. Whatever the reason, the results are the same. A child is ‘stuck’ at home, not accessing education while the network feels powerless to provide the correct support.
Statistics show us that there has been a big increase in school absence for students with special educational needs (SEN). Before the pandemic, the gap between pupils with an Education Health and Care Plan (EHCP) and those without was already wide. An absence rate of 8.2% for pupils with an EHCP compared with 4.1% for those without any SEN Support (2016/17 data). Viewing the 2021/22 data, we can see that has increased to 12.1% for pupils with an EHCP compared with 6.8% for those without SEN Support (2021/22 data). Ofsted reported that levels are not returning to pre-pandemic levels. Learners with an EHCP or SEND Support missed at least 10% of sessions at school in autumn 2021. This is substantially higher than pre-pandemic levels and ‘clearly detrimental to their education’ (Ofsted, 2022).
One reason included in the data is absence due to illness. However we know that these factors, amplified during the Covid-19 pandemic, can all lead to EBSA. Pupils that are out of school are more at risk of poor mental health, blows to their self-esteem and missing out on important learning experiences. There is also a risk of a negative impact on the resilience of the whole family.
Ofsted explicitly wrote in their 2021/2022 annual report that recovery from the pandemic for children who find learning most difficult requires ‘more expert, rigorous, evidence-based teaching’ (Ofsted, 2022).
Barriers to inclusion
Though much of society is now moving on from the pandemic, the significant impact it has had on our pupils and their families cannot be ignored. Much work to unpick the barriers to inclusion is required.
Individuals who are out of school, and their families, need support at home and in school. We need a joined-up approach beginning with a detailed functional assessment of the environmental factors that are impacting the individual. These may include difficulties accessing the curriculum in school, social problems such as bullying, sensory processing issues within a busy school environment, and staff capacity in school at a time when the education sector is experiencing a recruitment crisis.
Following the assessment, function-based interventions can be put in place to ensure the pupil is supported to access school again. These should involve work at school and in the home, making reasonable adjustments to the environment. Examples of reasonable adjustments could include:
- having staggered start times to avoid the busy start of school day for a pupil who finds the crowds overwhelming
- check ins with a trusted adult at the start and end of the school day
- alternative options for playtime for a pupil who struggles with social interactions in the playground.
It’s important to never lose sight of the individual; a person-centred approach is vital.
How BeyondAutism can support
If your child is struggling with EBSA, or you are a professional working with a child you believe might be experiencing EBSA, talk to your school about getting in contact with our Outreach Team for a discussion and to arrange a free, informal assessment. Or get in touch direct on 020 3031 9705 and email@example.com.
National Statistics (2022). Pupil absence in schools in England: autumn and spring terms 2021/22. Statistics come from viewing data in England by pupil characteristics: SEN – Statement or EHCP; SEN – No SEN. Accessed online: https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/pupil-absence-in-schools-in-england-autumn-and-spring-terms
Ofsted (2022). The Annual Report of His Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills 2021/22. Ordered by the House of Commons to be printed on 13 December 2022. Accessed online: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/ofsted-annual-report-202122-education-childrens-services-and-skills