Absent school children take up gardening to tackle attendance crisis in the North East

Kris Jepson reports on the attendance crisis facing the North East and the charities tackling the issue

Children in the North East who have regularly been absent from school have put on their gardening gloves in a project aimed at improving their mental health.

The Roots to Health project, run by The Children's Foundation in Newcastle, is supporting around 25 pupils who are struggling with their mental health and, as a result, are often absent from school.

Jamie, 11, has struggled to attend school since the Covid pandemic and lives with anxiety.

He told ITV News Tyne Tees: "It’s quite difficult going to school, but here it’s just a place where I can relax, you know, have fun, do some gardening. It’s helped me because I tend to be more calm at school, once I’ve been to the gardening, every Wednesday."

Jamie's family have seen improvement since he has enjoyed sessions in the allotment. Credit: ITV News

His dad, Ross Wilkinson, said he has noticed a real improvement in Jamie since attending the allotment: "He is starting to engage better at school. The family worker said to us that he was smiling and he was happy in one of his lessons yesterday, you know, and it was really nice to hear that. You know, and I feel that this has been a big contribution to that happening."

The North East has the second highest rate of 'severe' absenteeism in England at 2.32%, with children missing more than half their lessons.

It also has the third highest 'persistent' absent rate at 21.41%, just behind the West Midlands and London.

The programme is designed for 14–16 year-olds to encourage a return to a formal education setting and gain a formal qualification. Credit: ITV News

Sean Soulsby, of The Children's Foundation, said the charity funds the project through donations.

"I think it’s quite a big problem, post-Covid. We know that there are large numbers of children and young people who are not back in full-time education or in education at all", he said.

"We’re working very much with the schools to identify those young people, reaching out to them, getting them to come here, with the support of their parents and the school each week, so that A, they can be classed as present and in school, even though they are with us out here on the site. And B, re-engage in that education, with a view that they would then go back to some form of classroom-based school learning."

Getting their hands dirty through the horticultural project, not only improves the children's skills like teamwork and communication, but it allows them to gain a formal qualification and without knowing it, a form of therapy and counselling too.

Project leader, Robson Steele, said: "Although it is a Level One Horticulture award, there are so many soft skills that they’re learning.

"Whether it’s teamwork, whether it’s just being more confident in themselves, and the amount of young people who’ve said ‘I actively get up in the morning so excited to come here’, when they’re struggling to get to school, or they’re maybe not even getting out of bed until the afternoon, it’s really great to see them here, nice and early, excited to go."

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know...