School attendance: Blame game is easy but action is needed to stop classroom violence

When will we ever learn? You’d have to be living under a stone not to have noticed that there has been an outcry recently about the increasing numbers of children and young people not attending school.
Some children are not attending lessons and missing out on learning to avoid the growing tide of bullying and violence in schools.Some children are not attending lessons and missing out on learning to avoid the growing tide of bullying and violence in schools.
Some children are not attending lessons and missing out on learning to avoid the growing tide of bullying and violence in schools.

The primary finger of blame is being pointed at parents. They are by far the easiest target - labelled in effect as feckless, too lazy since Covid to get their children to school. This type of blame deliberately distracts from the actual problem. It serves to avoid looking deeper at the reasons why sizeable numbers of children and young people are not going to school. There are two main reasons which I have come across in my professional work.

For some children and young people with special educational needs, the mainstream school provision just does not work for them. What is offered is sometimes the opposite of what they need and, due to the scarcity of SEN provision, they are being forced to attend schools not at all suited for them. It isn't rocket science to work out that they will react adversely or simply not go.

A further example of children and young people I’ve worked extensively with are those seeking to avoid the growing tide of bullying and violence in schools. I was not at all surprised to see the recent research findings of the Youth Endowment Fund which highlights that a fifth of pupils have missed school at least once in the last year because they fear the violence taking place in their school. 

The results from their survey, which comprised of  over 7,500 young people aged 13 to 17 years of age, also showed that 16% have been victims of violence in England and Wales. A staggering 1,254 respondents, over half of these very same victims of violence, said that  they too perpetrated violence towards others. A further 1,533 children (20%) had avoided going into school as a result of feeling unsafe to do so. 

Their fears are solely not confined to school grounds. They also manifest themselves when travelling to and from school. Even if a child is not physically attacked, the fear of being attacked can be all pervasive. It is no wonder they might not even want to leave their homes to go to school. Knife crime and fear of knife crime aggravate these fears. Children's Commissioner Rachel de Souza says that knife crime and violence is the "number one issue" raised with her by young people. 

For decades now the fear of violence has been building, including around gang related violence. Consecutive governments have stepped up stating that this is an area of priority for them and during these announcements they have at varying times identified chunks of money to redress the problem. I have found from my work on the ground that, whilst all funding allocations are very much welcomed, there needs to be sustained funding over years and years along with the reinstatement of lost youth services and play services across the nation. The problems being faced today are not solely for schools to sort out as many issues of violence generate from within the communities, bubbling up and boiling over into schools.

Front facing youth services have been eroded over years so community-based relationships, intelligence and support has been lost. This does not bode well for supporting children and young people. 

Well established, innovative provisions based in neighbourhoods and dealing head-on with matters of violence and fear of violence have been subject to funding withdrawals and closure. The loss of youth clubs, play services and other provisions which youngsters could go to - away from school and home pressures to talk through their issues and fears - has been drastically reduced. 

There are now limits to where children and young people can go to help them express their fears, reflect and think through with trained and protective staff. This is alongside less places of leisure and recreation, as well as fewer trained professionals to turn to. At one time well-funded and sustainable youth services existed to help reflect and reaffirm.  More workers were available and approachable and ready to advise and support in challenging situations, including them intervening in situations of rising violence when necessary.  A core component of this was supporting children and young people to stay in education.

There is a need too for community based policing to be better resourced so these officers can spend time in schools and in communities. Their presence should not be punitive but protective. When we are talking about violence, it’s worth noting that the YEF survey  defined violence as "the use of force or threat of force against another person or people" including sexual assault. 

The breadth and extent of the violence that children and young people fear, living in our society today, is nothing short of outrageous. The trauma and legacy of fearing or experiencing violence, cannot be underestimated as they leave long term concerns and great harms too. 

It is incumbent upon government to rapidly escalate its support and to provide sustainable funding to secure not only fast track interventions but a long term strategy including family support and early interventions, health,  schools and police and youth offending services. They must make sure that no pupil is too frightened to go to school.

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