Hundreds of children did not return to school last year due to mental health and anxiety problems which experts say were exacerbated due to the pandemic.
New figures released to The Irish Times show 346 children were approved for the receipt of home tuition due to mental health reasons and “school phobia” during the 2020/21 school year. A total of 70 young people have been approved for home tuition on this basis in the current academic year.
Experts say these figures only represent exceptional cases where home tuition has been approved and that the full extent of problem is likely to be significantly greater.
Oireachtas education committee chairman Paul Kehoe said he was aware that the problem of school refusal has been a "huge issue" among many families during the pandemic.
“We’ve heard so many cases of children who have struggled to resettle into school. In most cases there are young people where there is no history of behavioural problems,” the Fine Gael TD said.
“They are from normal homes with loving parents. But many have gone into themselves and haven’t had the confidence to reconnect with friends and teachers due to school closures.”
The National Educational Psychological Service, which supports schools and pupils, confirmed earlier this year that it had detected an increase in so-called school refusal behaviour, particularly after schools reopened following closures in January and February of this year.
It says it has been working with individual children and schools to try to help ease pupils’ anxiety and to boost social and emotional supports within schools.
Support group Parentline also said it recorded a 47 per cent increase in calls last year from mothers and fathers worried about their children's refusal to go back to school.
In a statement, the Department of Education said that in exceptional cases it approves home tuition for students with diagnoses of school phobia or depression/anxiety which causes major disruption to their attendance at school.
A spokesman said this occurs when a continued absence from school is required to facilitate medical or therapeutic intervention with a view to the re-integration of the student in their school.
Experts say the most common ages for school refusal tend to be between five and seven years at primary and 11-14 years at second level.
It typically occurs when a young person feels anxious to the extent that they cannot go to school or stay in school for the full day despite their best efforts.
Catherine Hallissey, a senior child psychologist and former teacher, said that while it has been an issue prior to the pandemic, school closures have led to a surge in cases.
“There are children who might have struggled with anxiety before as well as those who never presented with any issues,” she said.
“The hallmark of anxiety is avoidance and, because children weren’t going out, they were avoiding anxiety-provoking situations. This avoidance feeds anxiety. Then, of all sudden, they were expected to jump right back into a routine.”
With therapeutic assistance which involves the child, parents and the schools, these issues can be overcome, she said.
Mr Kehoe said the Oireachtas education committee has backed calls for in-school counselling and therapeutic supports to be made available on a pilot basis to respond to growing needs.
“This kind of early intervention could help prevent issues like anxiety over school attendance building up into a crisis,” he said. “We know there are long waiting lists to access HSE mental health services, but a model like this could provide a speedy response at a low cost.”