The impact of bullying on school absence rates

School Absence

By Kat Fuller, Parent Support Manager at Kidscape

Like many kids, I was bullied at school. The thought of going back after the summer holidays filled me with utter dread - something I know thousands of children are currently feeling. So much so, they’ve not gone back.

Bullying can leave emotional and mental scars, affecting how we cope with lifelong into adulthood. It can be an exceptionally traumatic experience. In fact, Kidscape has recently partnered with the University of York to ascertain the relationship between bullying and trauma - and we know one in four children aged between seven and 15 in the UK are bullied.

Meanwhile, school absences have rocketed recently - in England, it’s risen by more than 50% since 2019, with one in five pupils now persistently absent. In my job as Parent Support Manager, I hear from parents whose children cannot face going to school because they’re being bullied - children who are bullied are three times more likely to truant than those who aren’t, and 24% of bullied kids are kept off school by their parents.

Meanwhile, school absences have rocketed recently - in England, it’s risen by more than 50% since 2019

According to figures released earlier this month by the Department for Education, in England alone, 22.3% of pupils are persistently absent, which equates to 1.8 million children. Parents face £60 fines if their children miss school, which rise to £120 if they’re not paid within 21 days.

Yet bullying isn’t being talked about anywhere near enough when it comes to school absenteeism by the government. In fact, it’s mentioned only once, in passing, by last year’s Children’s Commissioner report into the problem.

But bullying is a massive factor when it comes to young people missing school.

Our advice line has been incredibly busy, and almost every parent I've spoken to said attendance is an issue because of bullying, because their child is terrified of returning to the environment where they’re getting bullied.

It’s really hard for parents because they want their children to be in school and for them to have an education. Schools are following Department for Education guidance to send out strong messages about how persistent absences will be dealt with. Parents are left torn between supporting their child’s well-being and ensuring they don’t face legal action, such as fines for non-attendance.

Parents are stuck. They’re not getting the help, support and advice they need from schools, Local Authorities and other services, so they turn to us.

We desperately need to raise more awareness about the wider implications of bullying and its part in school absenteeism. We need all schools to be physically and emotionally safe spaces where pupils aren’t left so terrified of abuse that they avoid it.

Recently, a parent asked me, if a teacher had to go back into an environment where a colleague had threatened to kill them, wouldn't we be doing more about it?

Recently, a parent asked me, if a teacher had to go back into an environment where a colleague had threatened to kill them, wouldn't we be doing more about it?

That sums up a major part of the problem - I think people underestimate the severity of the impact of bullying because it is sometimes seen as a rite of passage or dismissed as banter. But if somebody has threatened to harm you and you have to go back into the same building as them, it must be incredibly scary.

Often, parents come to us who have tried everything, and they don't know what to do. They’ve been through the system, and quite often, they've even started the complaints process because they feel strongly that the school hasn't dealt properly with the issue.

As a consequence, I passionately believe there also needs to be a more integrated, holistic, considered approach. For example, young people might be given access to a counsellor in school- but if school doesn't feel safe, are they going to feel safe talking to that person or trust them? These kids are too scared to leave their bedrooms in some cases - they’re not going to go into school to talk to them in the first place.

Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) may support young people whose mental health has been affected by bullying, but waiting lists are incredibly long. Young people who can’t attend school due to the impact of bullying are still entitled to an education. There are some services set up specifically to educate those traumatised by bullying, such as Red Balloon Learner Centres, but not enough to reach the sheer volume of young people affected. All of these services need to be given more priority and funding.

But more importantly, we're not really listening to the children when they're trying to tell us how severely bullying is affecting them. Children's rights, their voices and lived experience are far too easily dismissed.

While we wait for the issue to be tackled more comprehensively at a national level, if you’re worried your child doesn’t want to go to school because they’re being bullied, try and start the conversation gently. Perhaps mention a story about bullying in the third person to see if it prompts a reaction.

Support for yourself and for your child is crucial in such a challenging situation, so reach out for help. Keep accurate records of what's happening so you can confidently speak to the school about the negative impact bullying is having. Tell the school that you want to work together to improve attendance but that you need help because your child is scared.

Parents can also call Kidscape’s advice line for support and information; plus we have loads of free advice and resources on our website. We also have free workshops for young people who have been affected by bullying, both online and in person. It’s helpful for both parents and children to know they’re not going through the nightmare of bullying alone.

Going to school is important. It’s not just the educational impact, it’s about children forming social bonds and the extracurricular aspects that enrich their lives too. But until we properly talk about bullying as a major factor keeping young people out of class and support families properly, high levels of school absenteeism are going to continue.

So, together, let’s tackle bullying and get kids back into the classroom.




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