‘School phobia led to our son’s suicide’
The parents of Raunds teenager Callum Woodcroft speak about their son’s death following mental health problems they believe were caused by the school environment
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By Sarah Ward
“It was extreme school phobia. We can all say ‘Oh I’m scared, I’ve got my driving test next week’, ‘Oh I’m scared I’ve got a meeting and have to stand up in front of people and talk’ and we sort of understand what anxiety feels like when you say that. Times it by a million just to go to school. That’s what he was feeling.”
Martin and Mandy Woodcroft’s son Callum took his own life last year aged just 13.
The Manor School student had been unhappy in school since his primary years, trying to abscond, threatening to hit himself over the head with a paving slab, self harming and regularly saying he wanted to die. He suffered from anxiety and did not feel like he was doing well academically, with his literacy levels well below his years.
His parents say his phobia of school began in Year 1, after an incident left him needing hospital attention, and progressively got worse. By Year 5 he was extremely sad and was being sent out of class on occasions. The family say he was not bullied and was a popular child, not a loner or an outsider.
His dad Martin said:
“There was any and every excuse possible in the mornings not to go to school and as parents we were advised that the best place for him was in school. As parents we would have loved to have said ‘Stay off every day mate, do what you want’, but we were trying to be responsible and we were listening to advice about getting him into school and keeping him in school, even when we thought this was hurting him mentally badly and we would rather he stayed at home, we pushed him to school.
“It usually resulted in him getting excluded later that day, but we did what we thought was right and the schools did what they thought was right.”
The 2020 pandemic interrupted Callum’s schooling in his first year of secondary school. But whereas for many children the lockdown created anxiety, for Callum, the absence from school lifted his spirits.
“I’m probably in the minority of people to say ‘Thank god for Covid’ because we had a good year of him messing about. The weather was great - we had a great year. I worked from home as well and I’m so grateful I had those extra days with him. It sounds ridiculous. Who the hell wanted Covid? So that again enforces in our brains that it was the school environment.”
On his return to school after the first lockdown in September 2020 he was sluggish at school and emotional.
His behaviour led him to be excluded for 45 days over 22 periods while at secondary school. The exclusions led Callum to get more behind with his studies. In November 2021 he shouted out in the school corridor that he would be ‘dead by Christmas’.
In January 2022, he took a medicine overdose but luckily was unharmed. Two months later he tragically died.
A child safeguarding review published yesterday looked at how agencies involved had interacted with Callum and his family since he was in Year 5 until his death when a Year 9 pupil, and has made a series of recommendations to Northamptonshire Safeguarding Children Partnership.
The review (which anonymises Callum as child Bj) uncovered issues with Northamptonshire’s early help assessment system (which is administered by the independent children’s trust) in terms of how schools and professionals accessed it and who took charge of the plans and outcomes. It also showed an issue with resources across different services.
The report said:
“It was unclear from the information agencies provided when the Early Help Assessments were put in place or which agencies attended and contributed to it. It is also unclear as to who had professional oversight and was responsible for following up step down processes / active support plans. The schools at the practitioner event felt that Early Help Assessments were always, or at least in over 95% of Early Help Assessments where schools are involved, are left up to them to deal with. No one else, other than the parents, turn up at meetings.
“A number of agencies did highlight that their current resource issues meant that they would not be able to attend and support Early Help Assessment meetings. It was stated that there is an Early Help Assessment coordinator in each area that can be asked for advice. It was strongly felt by almost all practitioners that the Early Help Assessment process needed a review and strengthening. The parents felt that the Early Help Assessment was just left by all other agencies to the secondary school to get on with.”
The review author Russell Wate also said professionals were not fully informed of what Northamptonshire had to offer and that partnership working was hampered:
“This is the clear finding from this review, that agencies and professionals don't always know what is available. There is also a need for individuals and agencies to ensure that they work collaboratively and make best use of available resources to be able to effectively engage with Early Help Assessments. This is an impasse that needs to be resolved. “
The family GP made a number of referrals to the county’s Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) which is run by Northamptonshire Healthcare Foundation Trust.
The report says:
“However, for most of the referrals thresholds for specialist mental health services were assessed as not met. He was though seen on two occasions and after assessment it was decided that Child Bj did not meet the criteria for diagnosis of a moderate to severe mental illness or need a mental health diagnosis.”
Callum did receive some support from Service Six and attended the Frank Bruno boxing academy. A referral was made to the school nurse by CAMHS but Callum was not seen by the service, which had staff shortages and had reduced capacity during Covid.
“They gave up on him a little bit too easily and signed him off a little bit too quickly. They are supposedly the experts. CAMHS were the experts and they clearly missed something.”
Callum’s dad said he agrees with the assessment made by the review regarding early help and says of the schools his son attended and the staff:
“They weren't the experts and they weren’t trained but they were left to deal with it.
“We’re not angry with anyone. We have been angry - we have gone through all the stages of grief. I don’t blame anyone. If it was cancer - we would have said, ‘Unfortunately that illness killed him’, with mental health, something wrong in his brain killed him. We can’t change the outcome, maybe we could have if people had been a bit more attentive - spent a bit more time with him. I went to a lot of the meetings and it’s sort of ten-to fifteen minutes and then ‘we’re done, got to get the next one in’. So it’s not their fault as a person, its resources, its time, its money. I’m not angry with anyone, I just feel a bit let down and frustrated with the system.”
Since Callum’s death the Nene Education Trust, which runs Manor School and also Windmill Primary Pchool which Callum attended, has given training to all staff about suicide prevention.
The Trust’s Director of School Improvement at Nene Education Trust, who was Callum’s primary headteacher, said yesterday:
“Our condolences and ongoing support remain with the student’s family and friends. We are committed to making some positive change out of something so tragic that has impacted so many in our community.
“The Trust has since taken significant steps, in collaboration with suicide prevention charity Kelly’s Heroes, to instigate a pioneering programme to provide in person, specialised suicide awareness training to more than 400 teachers and Trust staff.
“We have taken this proactive approach to highlight the help and support that is available for students and staff suffering mental health issues and welcome the news that schools across the region are now following our lead as part of a countywide programme focusing on suicide prevention.”
The Woodcrofts say they admire the work the academy trust has done since Callum’s death, but would like to see it do more to understand the behaviour displayed by children who have a school phobia.
They only have praise for Kelly’s Heroes - a charity founded in memory of Wellingborough woman Kelly Hewitt who took her own life aged 24.
“All we want is some good to come out of it and Kelly’s Heroes,I can’t praise them enough for what they’re doing as a charity. They really get it. They have gone above and beyond as a charity to help us. They have supported us on a personal level. It is different to bereaved by suicide. We are going through it and it will never end.”
Paying tribute to his son, who was the middle of three children, Martin said:
“To me he was my best mate. He was very similar to me. He did care. Years ago he had a friend who was a girl and they got on so well. She had a brother who was autistic and their parents said to him ‘no-one had ever sat down with this child like you do. You get him’. He was always there to care about others. The last thing he said to his mum was that he loved her.”
What is school phobia?
As the review says:
“He suffered from acute school phobia. There is no exact definition of what this is but the charity, Young Minds, says there can be lots of reasons a young person feels this way. It might be that they feel overwhelmed with anxiety about schoolwork or relationships with friends and teachers. They might be experiencing bullying and not feel able to talk about it, or they might have low self-esteem. The charity Mind want the Government to do more to recognise this phobia and for mental health providers to treat this phobia as a mental health condition.”
The term now commonly used in research is ‘Emotionally Based School Avoidance’.
Recommendations and public statements
A number of recommendations were made from the review to the Northamptonshire Safeguarding Children Partnership (NSCP) which is chaired by Jenny Coles.
These include the NSCP;
ensuring agencies and professionals who work with young people understanding the early help framework;
should ensure that all frontline staff working with children and young people who are 10 years of age and over are supported to access learning related to suicide prevention;
should ensure that all schools are aware of the learning from Child Bj’s case, his strong feelings of school phobia and to support schools with learning and development to enable schools to develop appropriate trauma informed practice;
should ensure that partners improve information and advice available to parents/carers about signs to be concerned about for their children in relation to suicide ideation, including those who disengage with mental health services. This should include access for them to local crisis helplines and national resources.
Statements were issued by various agencies yesterday:
The NSCP said:
“Following this deeply distressing case, the NSCP took a decision to instigate a Child Safeguarding Practice Review which has drawn significant learning points for practitioners.
“Among the various recommendations is a strong, ongoing commitment to continue to support the work being done around suicide prevention across Northamptonshire, including the development of face-to-face training for all colleagues working within safeguarding, including all schools.
“This is an area where there is still much to be understood, but significant progress is being made to address the issues faced by some vulnerable young people.”
Chief nursing officer at Northamptonshire Integrated Care Board Yvonne Higgins: “This is an extremely sad case where a young person has taken their life, and our thoughts are with the family and friends of Child Bj.
“As a statutory partner of the Safeguarding Children Partnership, we welcome the publication of the learning review and are committed to increasing understanding and learning relating to prevention of child suicide and awareness of associated risk factors.
“The NHS in Northamptonshire is absolutely committed to playing our part in trying to reduce suicide in our county, and NHS partners have actively inputted and supported the work driven by the Suicide Prevention strategy.”
NHFT Interim chief operating officer Anne Rackham, said:
“We extend our sympathies to the family and friends of Child Bj at this very difficult time.
“We welcome the report’s publication, which is an important step in sharing the learnings of this review. We are a learning trust and the outcomes of this review will help us shape our services and the wider approach to children’s mental health services across both NHS and voluntary sector partners.
“If anyone has concern about a young person in their lives, we would encourage them to speak to their GP, a school nurse or via the contact information available on our website www.nhft.nhs.uk/cypmentalhealth
“The school nursing team provides advice and help to young people across our county and can support with basic advice related to low mood, stress or anxiety. Like other NHS services, the school nursing team has seen an increase in demand following the pandemic and our teams continue to work with partners to help young people access relevant support to their needs.
“During the Covid-19 pandemic our school nursing team were required to provide support to managing the pandemic, with risk assessments and prioritisation taking place on referrals made to them. While the school nurses were unable to support in this tragic case, a number of other services were involved in their care.”