Poor mental health becomes top cause for college student absence

Stress is particularly acute for English and maths resitters

Stress is particularly acute for English and maths resitters

Mental health has become the primary cause for student absence in colleges, new data suggests, particularly for learners forced to resit GCSE English and maths.

Nearly nine in 10 colleges say poor mental health is the main reason for absenteeism this year, an almost 40-percentage point jump from 2019, according to a survey by the Association of Colleges (AoC). 

Half of the 68 colleges that responded also report that cost-of-living pressures are alsoforcing students to opt for paid work rather than go to class.

Perfect storm

While the overall attendance rate among 16 to 18-year-old learners and adults has remained stable at between 86 and 84 per cent over the past four years, the reasons behind absences have shifted. 

The AoC’s survey asked colleges to select the top three reasons for poor student attendance in the 2023 autumn term and compared the figures to 2019. 

Most (88 per cent) respondents selected poor mental health, almost double the 50 per cent cited pre-pandemic.

Increasing reasons behind non-attendance – poor mental health, getting a job and transport issues – demonstrate the “perfect storm” of pressures directly impacting learners, according to Catherine Sezen, the AoC’s director of education policy.

Learners generally call into college and speak to staff to notify them of their absence.

The government’s FE student support champion Polly Harrow suggests that students are “a bit more confident than they used to be” in naming mental ill health as their reason.

Principals have told FE Week mental health absence is harder to manage and have called on the government to speed up the “glacial progress” of rolling out mental health support team leaders.

 “Mental health absence is so much less predictable. We have a team of welfare support coaches who identify those learners with frequently lower attendance than we would want and work with them to understand what the barriers are and how we might help support them,” says Andrew Cropley, the principal of West Notts College.

 College leaders say they have a growing responsibility to provide support to young people in crisis, following cuts to primary care and local authority budgets, and lengthy waits for NHS mental health services.

 “There is an unfunded burden on colleges to provide mental health services,” Harrow says.

 Sezen adds: “Without additional funding for mental health services in colleges, and cost of living support, colleges will be limited in what they can do to support students who are facing barriers to attendance.”

 Not all colleges provide direct counselling services, but some have introduced free breakfasts, free transport and even therapy dogs during exam season to alleviate anxiety.

“It’s about the wraparound support you have put in place support them to attend,” says Ben Manning, City College Plymouth’s executive of curriculum, quality and student experience.

Mental health issues can worsen during exam season, leading to extra accommodation from colleges and increased staff support services.

FE Week reported in April that student anxiety and other mental health issues were triggering a wave of learners needing special exam access arrangements such as smaller rooms, extra time or rest breaks.

“We almost literally have to carry some of them into exam rooms to get through that distress,” says Cropley.

‘Stress’ of English and maths resits

The AoC findings add further evidence of the “stress” of English and maths resits. 

Both had the poorest attendance rate – 76 per cent – out of all the subject areas in the 2023 survey, followed by construction, planning and the built environment and health and care.

“Having to attend maths and English after failing at school causes high levels of stress,” Harrow says. “That might lead to then refuse to attend education.” 

An FE Week investigation last month found rising mental health concerns among the reasons for the “worst” student behaviour college leaders have seen. 

They have consistently called for a review into resits, with colleges having to accommodate more as school pass rates fall.

But the government has doubled down on its intention to improve pass rates. As part of the controversial maths and English condition of policy, from September all colleges must enrol students in English and maths resits or risk losing funding.

Meanwhile, Cropley backs a creative and flexible curriculum to improve attendance in all subjects. West Notts, for example, adapted its curriculum so construction students couldbuild a kitchen garden for the college restaurant, leading to 100 per cent attendance as well as full attendance for the English and maths lessons beforehand.

His advice? “Make it too good to miss. Make it like getting tickets for a Taylor Swift concert and everyone will want to come.”

Take up of mental health training low in FE

The government has made efforts to boost staff training in mental health. 

In 2018, NHS England and the Department for Education rolled out the delivery of mental health support teams (MHST) to provide external specialist services. They would help the senior mental health lead in each college deliver “evidence-based interventions” for mild to moderate mental health issues.

But data published this week shows out of the more than 728,000 learners in post-16 education – 35 per cent – have access to mental MHSTs. That equates to just 23 per cent of colleges with access, compared with 59 per cent of secondary schools. 

Meanwhile, FE remains the lowest sector to take up a £1,200 grant to fund the training of a senior mental health lead. Sixty per cent of colleges completed their grant application as of March 31, compared to 81 per cent in schools.

Margaret Mulholland, the SEND and inclusion specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders, says the figures show “glacial progress”. 

“This should be no cause for celebration when set against the increasing demand for support and growing unmet needs. 

A DfE spokesperson said: “We are supporting the mental health of post-16 learners in colleges through programmes including senior mental health lead training to foster a whole-college approach to mental health and wellbeing.

“We have also introduced Mental Health Support Teams to schools and colleges to provide evidence-based interventions for mild-to-moderate mental health issues, along with a resource hub and toolkit for staff.”

“We have appointed Polly Harrow as the first FE Student Support Champion, tasked with providing strategic leadership to enhance colleges’ ability to support learners’ mental health and overall success over the next two years.”

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