CHILDREN in Oxfordshire are skipping school and turning to self-harm as they struggle to overcome the crushing impact of poor mental health.

A new report has revealed that mental health illness has become the most common reason for ‘persistent absence’ in the county’s schools, made worse as children linger on a waiting list to access help from the NHS.

It comes as new data exposes the increasing number of children who have been admitted to Oxfordshire hospitals after self-harming, which has shot up by 38 per cent in just one year.

Oxfordshire County Council’s education scrutiny committee visited schools to investigate why the county's secondary school absence consistently exceeds the national average, and found mental health to be a key factor.

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The committee’s investigation, which will be presented at a council meeting today, states: “The most common reason for persistent absences was illness.

“Schools expanded on this and noted the most common reason for persistent absences at the time of writing were mental health related illness, and this was compounded by the waiting time to access CAMHS (child and adolescent mental health services) in the county.”

Statistics released by the Department for Education on Thursday show that in the 2017-18 academic year, 3,400 of Oxfordshire pupils were classed as ‘persistent absentees.’

These are pupils who have missed more than 10 per cent of possible school ‘sessions’ (half days).

Oxfordshire exceeded the national averages for both secondary school absence overall and the percentage of persistent absentees at secondary schools.

Of all absences at the county’s primary and secondary schools, authorised illness was by far the most common reason - 385,296 days were missed in the 2017-18 year due to illness.

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Though the figures do not differentiate between physical or mental illness, the scrutiny committee’s visit to four Oxfordshire secondary schools found the latter to be significant.

Schools are increasingly aware of the mental health pressures on pupils, particularly with help from organisations such as One-Eighty and Oxfordshire Schools' Mental Health and Wellbeing Network.

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Resources from One-Eighty mental health session at an Oxfordshire school. Pic: One-Eighty charity

The latter launched at Aureus School in Didcot, which won an award this year for its approach to mental health, and provides schools with free or low cost mental health training.

Lucinda Powell, who runs the network alongside Aureus’s headteacher, said: “Sometimes with anxiety and depression, which usually go hand in hand, you are simply do not have the energy to be able to get out of bed.

"When you're anxious you have safety behaviours - in the short term it relieves anxiety to not go to school, but in the long term it's really harmful as it affects your education and reinforces the anxiety.

"Quite often anxiety has physical manifestations - you might feel sick or have a headache - so it's quite difficult to unpick the reasons behind absence."

Former psychology teacher Mrs Powell, who lives in Wallingford, said there is a 'conflict' as to how much schools should interfere with such complexities.

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She said: "It's not a teacher's job to be a mental health professional, and they shouldn't have to have more workload.

"On the other hand, having positive mental health helps students to succeed.

"Teachers are often really fearful of saying the wrong thing, but just doing nothing is worse - there is no 'magic' [solution], all you need to do is listen."

Concerns about the impact of mental health on attendance coincide with new Public Health England figures, which reveal the number of children aged 10-14 who have been admitted to Oxfordshire hospitals due to self-harm.

The figure is at the highest since annual figures were first collected in 2012 - the number of admissions rocketed from 74 in 2016-17 to 102 in 2017-18, which is above the national rate.

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During the same year 287 people aged 15-19 were admitted to Oxfordshire’s hospitals after self-harming, a slight decrease on the previous year.

A spokesperson for Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust said: "As we have thankfully seen mental health more openly discussed and addressed in recent years, we have also seen a 69 per cent increase in referrals to our Oxfordshire CAMHS.

"We are pleased to have received additional funding from NHS England to become a trailblazer site to help more children, more quickly, by reducing wait times, employing additional staff and developing mental health support teams for schools across the county by next year."

In December the government announced that Oxfordshire agencies would receive £5.4m to slash waiting times for CAMHS services, from an average of 12 weeks to four weeks.

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The education scrutiny committee’s report acknowledged that work is being done to tackle waiting times and it ‘supports the direction being taken.’

Committee members who compiled the absence report concluded that ‘addressing school attendance requires a long-term commitment to culture change at schools.’

They will discuss the findings at a public meeting at County Hall from 10am today.