Associate Professor Dr Vaso Totsika opened her CEDAR Seminar Series talk by explaining how, before COVID-19, rates of school absence and persistence absence (missing more than 10% of schooling days in an academic year) were higher among children with neurodevelopmental conditions than other children.
Providing context for the seminar, Dr Totsika described how COVID-19 brought disruption to the education sector between 2020 and 2021. National lockdowns and bubble closures meant all children were not regularly in school- with disruptions increasing children’s levels of anxiety. For children with neurodevelopmental conditions, rising levels of anxiety were also due to greater exposure and risk of COVID-19. Parental anxiety was also prominent with concerns surrounding infections and the vulnerable health of themselves and their child. In response, there were reported rises in elective home education as parents did not want their children to return to the schooling environment in September 2020.
Attendance of school registered children with neurodevelopmental conditions
The first part of Dr Totsika’s seminar focused on findings investigating school attendance problems and types of school attendance for school registered children with neurodevelopmental conditions approximately 1 year after the pandemic started in the UK.
The unmet needs of children with neurodevelopmental conditions (where the school cannot or does not provide sufficient response to the child’s additional or different learning needs) are identified in literature as a barrier to school attendance even before COVID-19. However, Dr Totsika explained that evidence suggests teachers have found it increasingly difficult to teach children with neurodevelopmental conditions since COVID-19 due to increases in behaviours that challenge and greater demands to teach and apply risk mitigation measures. Dr Totsika then posed the question of whether these unmet needs are still a main barrier to attendance school for children with neurodevelopmental conditions during and one year after the pandemic?
In May 2021, parents of school registered children with neurodevelopmental conditions took part in the study. Child refusal was outlined as the main type of school absence for both children with neurodevelopmental conditions who were persistently absent (more than 10% of schooling days in an academic year) or absent for one or more days over the last month, followed by health-related reasons and COVID-19 related factors.
Examining these types of school absence further, Dr Totsika then discussed the factors identified as contributing to the school absence of children with neurodevelopmental conditions. For children with high numbers of total absence days or persistent absence, child and home factors such as child clinical vulnerability status, older in age, anxiety, high family deprivation, and parental disability, were most likely to be associated with school absence.
Dr Totsika then gave an overview of perceived barriers and facilitators of school attendance during the 2020-2021 academic year. COVID-19 factors were not reported as the main barrier, but rather, the child’s unmet needs: lack of adaptation to the environment and learning experience for the child’s additional or different learning needs, and also lack of understanding from teachers. Whilst facilitators of school attendance included good school provision to accommodate child additional learning needs, a positive parent- teacher relationship, sound child well-being, and effective routines.
Relationship between mode of learning during COVID-19 and school attendance one year after
The second part of Dr Totsika’s seminar focused on the relationship between mode of learning during the January and March 2021 COVID-19 national lockdown and school attendance in May 2021.
Dr Totsika reminded the audience that government guidelines during the national lockdown stated that children across the UK could attend the schooling environment if they were identified as being vulnerable or as having a special educational need and disability.
Findings from the study found that children who attended school every day were more likely to be younger in age, more likely to have an intellectual disability or neurodevelopmental conditions, and more likely to have an education, health and care plan.
Dr Totsika explained that the findings showed children with neurodevelopmental conditions whose learning was either hybrid or solely at home were mainly supported by the school through email or an online platform – with only some schools offering online lessons. However, parents of these children reported lower levels of satisfaction towards supports provided for home learning and how schools handled COVID-19, in comparison to those whose child attended school every day.
Interestingly, children with neurodevelopmental conditions who were home schooled during January and March 2021 were more likely to have increased rates of absence and persistent absences in May 2021 compared to those who were going to school every day or some days.
Children with neurodevelopmental conditions and elective home education
The final part of the seminar focused on elective home education before and after COVID-19. Elective home education is defined as a child being de-registered from their school and the family assumes responsibility for their education (Department for Education, 2019).
The current study gathered data from families whose children were on elective home education after COVID-19 started in March 2020 and children who were de-registered before COVID-19. Across both groups, there were similarities in the socio demographic profile of children with neurodevelopmental conditions and their learning setup (mainly daily parental caregiver support, with some children receiving support from an online tutor or online learning). Families tended to have equipment needed to support home learning, but a primary unmet need was the lack of specialist equipment or software for their child. Despite this, both groups rated high levels of satisfaction for elective home education.
However, Dr Totsika explained that the data showed there were no differences between levels of anxiety or internalising and externalising problems of children who were educated before and after COVID-19. This was also found between children with neurodevelopmental conditions who were school registered or on elective home education.
Conclusion and Next Steps
Dr Totsika ended her seminar by suggesting that COVID-19 had limited impact on educational experiences of children with neurodevelopmental conditions, and unmet needs are still a main barrier for school attendance and a key reason for school de-registration. However, the association between home learning and school absence could propose a blanket policy for school closure and learning from home could exacerbate school attendance difficulties which are already higher in children with neurodevelopmental conditions.
Moving forwards, Dr Totsika suggested that further focus should be placed on child mental health, but also the role of parent-teacher relationship and how this relationship could contribute to reducing attendance problems.
Dr Vaso Tostika is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Education Studies, the University of Warwick.
Emma Taylor is a Research Fellow at CEDAR, the University of Warwick.