‘Children are holding a mirror up to us’: why are England’s kids refusing to go to school? | Schools

Millie was seven years old when she started struggling with going to school. Her teachers weren’t too worried initially, her mother, Sarah, says: she was managing fine academically. But Millie, who is autistic and has a sensory processing disorder, seemed to find the busy classroom overwhelming. The following year, she began seriously to resist.

“It would start the night before,” says Sarah, a children’s nurse. “She couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat her dinner, then in the morning she’d be absolutely flat out – it was taking an hour to get her out of bed. I would have to dress her, she’d be like a rag doll. And all the time they kept saying, ‘Just get her in, she’s fine once she’s in.’ It got to the point where I was physically unable to carry her, she’d be lying on the floor kicking and screaming.”

The first Covid lockdown in spring 2020 was, for Millie, a welcome relief. “You weren’t allowed to go to school, you weren’t allowed to leave the house, nobody was allowed to come round – it was good for her.” That September, Millie returned to school armed with an Educational Health and Care Plan (EHCP), a statement of her special needs, which was meant to guarantee specific support in school. But her mother says it wasn’t consistently followed. Millie began having panic attacks, and the following autumn “she just had an absolute meltdown, breakdown, whatever you want to call it. So she stopped going to school.”

Sarah fought for a place at a special school with tiny classes, which could ease her daughter back gradually. But halfway through her first term, Millie broke down again. Now 12, her only education for nearly a year has been work sent home via a hospital tutoring programme for chronically sick children, and her parents have drastically adjusted their expectations for her. “If she’s alive, happy … there’s so much more that’s relevant in life than going to university,” Sarah says. “The difficulty is she wants to be doing things. She loves learning.”

When Millie gets frustrated, she sometimes self-harms, pulling her hair out and picking at her skin till it bleeds. Sarah’s voice breaks as she discloses that her daughter used to say she’d rather be dead, so she didn’t have to go to school. “When she was saying those things, she was so young she didn’t even realise people can kill themselves. Now she’s older she knows suicide is a thing. That’s why we have to keep her safe at home.”

The strain on the family is intense: Sarah has stopped work, her husband had a breakdown himself last year, and she feels judged by other parents. “People say, ‘Just tell them they have to go; shout at them, take their iPad away.’ And I say, ‘It’s not that they don’t want to go to school, it’s that they can’t.’”

As a new autumn term begins, the biggest challenge for many headteachers is getting children through the door. After three years of constant interruptions to education, from lockdowns to Covid outbreaks and teaching strikes, attendance has crumbled. Persistent absence, defined as missing more than 10% of lessons, more than doubled from 8% of primary and 13.7% of secondary school children pre-Covid across England to 17% and 28% respectively in 2022-2023. Rachel de Souza, children’s commissioner for England, calculates that of the 1.6 million children persistently absent during the autumn and spring of 2021-22, 818,000 were off for reasons other than the usual childhood illnesses. Many of these absentees are worryingly vulnerable: children with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND) and children on free school meals are disproportionately more likely to be persistently off. But absence is a complex, many-headed hydra.

Some parents have seemingly learned to treat education more casually, taking cheap term-time holidays or allowing “duvet days”. (The Instagram parenting influencer Molly Gunn recently confessed to letting her children take birthdays, “lounging days” and six weeks in Ibiza off.) At the other end of the spectrum are the “ghost children” supposedly vanishing from schools during the pandemic and potentially at risk of falling into crime or abuse. Though there are few reliable estimates for how many children have actually fallen off the radar completely, in the autumn of 2020 93,514 children were absent more than 50% of the time compared with just over 60,000 pre-Covid.

But perhaps the most perplexing problem facing headteachers is an apparent wave of chronic anxiety in children, leading to what was formerly known as school refusal – now termed “emotionally based school avoidance”. For some children who found school difficult and craved the comfort of home, leaving the cocoon of lockdown was obviously tough. But for others, anxiety seems to have emerged only under the stress and isolation of the pandemic. And sometimes children’s own feelings can be hard to disentangle from those of parents anxious about mixing socially again. Whatever the cause, this autumn offers a critical opportunity for a fresh start.

“September is the moment,” says De Souza, who fears that if absence isn’t solved now, then it may become baked in, with lifelong consequences for the most disadvantaged. “Every child, however difficult it is and for whatever reason they might be out of school, will think again in September.” The education secretary Gillian Keegan is also preparing an autumn offensive, appealing this summer for heads to fetch children in from home themselves if necessary.

But parent groups such as Not Fine in School and Square Peg, representing families like Sarah’s, say crackdowns on nonattendance risk stigmatising those whose children genuinely can’t cope. They want better pastoral care and SEND provision in schools instead, and for children’s happiness to be prioritised. “All we’ve been measuring is results, tests, exams,” says Square Peg’s director, Ellie Costello. “I think our children have been holding a mirror up to us – the life we are asking them to live, the expectations on them, the pressures on them.” This isn’t just an argument about attendance – in part, it’s about the nature of childhood itself.

Growing up in Middlesbrough, in a neighbourhood where, he says wryly, teenage boys could get up to all sorts, sport evidently helped keep Michael Robson on track. A former professional footballer – he signed to Sunderland straight from school but never quite made the big time – he is friendly but brisk, with an athlete’s iron self-discipline. He waves away the proffered sandwich lunch when we meet at Grangefield academy in the market town of Stockton-on-Tees in County Durham.

Robson is now a senior executive at the Northern Education Trust, which oversees this school and a scattering of other academies along the north-east coast, from the former mining community of Blyth down through Hartlepool to nearby Redcar. But before the pandemic, he was headteacher at North Shore academy, the trust’s other school in Stockton, where he oversaw an uncompromising approach to boosting attendance (since adopted trust-wide) dubbed “exemplary” by the schools minister Nick Gibb. (The trust’s CEO, Rob Tarn, now sits on the Department for Education’s Attendance Action Alliance, helping spread best practice nationwide via regional attendance “hubs”, or local clusters of schools who share strategies.) Here, then, is the government’s favoured recipe.

Work starts well before the school day begins, with the attendance team visiting some children before they’ve even had a chance to bunk off. “We’ll knock on the door at 7.30am and say, ‘Don’t forget, you’re in school today,’” explains Andrew Murphy, Grangefield’s equally energetic executive principal. Lists of absentees are generated within minutes of registers being taken; all can then expect a phone call or knock on the door, even if parents ring in to report a child is sick. (Absence is considered a safeguarding issue, because for some children, failing to turn up could signal they are in danger, at home or elsewhere.) In the afternoons, staff might phone parents of children reported sick to ask if they’ll be back tomorrow, or visit hardened absentees who don’t answer a morning knock. And if it doesn’t work? “Keep trying – we go again,” Robson says. The trust’s ethos is the “no excuses” approach beloved of Michael Gove in his time as education secretary – which means no blaming challenging circumstances, even though these schools serve the kind of disadvantaged, mainly white working-class communities where attendance was historically difficult even pre-Covid. “We should be able to do it for the kids in this community, and we don’t expect less of them,” Robson adds firmly.

Michael Robson, senior executive at the Northern Education Trust and a former headteacher, standing on a school PE bench with a basketball net above his head
‘Some young people are really, really struggling’: Michael Robson of the Northern Education Trust. Photograph: Christopher Owens/The Guardian

All this costs money – Grangefield has access to five learning managers, an educational welfare officer and safeguarding officer, which Robson says is affordable only because they belong to a big multi-academy trust. And crucially, it also involves carrots alongside the stick. Walking round the school, the corridors ring to the sound of applause: children here are taught to clap good answers from classmates, and those who go the extra mile get their names written up on the classroom door. On every table sit boxes of equipment to which pupils can help themselves – not every family here can afford pens and rulers – and a strict uniform policy is maintained by ensuring nobody goes without. “If it’s a hardship, we’ll give them a blazer; if they’ve no shoes, we will give them shoes. If they’ve forgotten something, we’ll lend it,” Robson says. During lockdown the trust bought every child a laptop; anyone not logged on by the time online lessons started got a phone call or visit.

Then there is the Bridge, a small nurturing unit designed to ease children back if they’ve been off with serious illness or are vulnerable for other reasons. “You might have a child who is out of school and the prospect of returning to a big cohort is terrifying. For some we’ll say, ‘You just need to come in at these hours and work with a teaching assistant or tutor in your own room,’” Robson says. In nearby Redcar, the trust tried taking severely absent kids to make things in the engineering department of a local college or on outdoor activities: anything to rebuild relationships with teachers.

Yet for all this, attendance remains a “daily battle”: while it’s still above the national average at North Shore, it’s not yet back to pre-Covid levels. And, rather tellingly, that pattern isn’t just confined to children. In 2022, the year the pandemic officially ended, sickness absence among working adults was higher than in any year since 2004. Almost half of adults still work at least sometimes from home. In demanding children snap back to the old norm, society is arguably asking more of them than of grownups. What’s more, when schools minister Gibb was asked by MPs this year about a reported rise in anxiety among children, he said home working may have allowed some parents to keep at home anxious children who would once have had to go to school.

There is still little hard research on how many children are experiencing sustained anxiety about school post-lockdown. The NHS found one in six children aged five to 16 had a probable mental health disorder in the summer of 2020, up from one in nine three years earlier. According to the schools insurer Zurich last year, a staggering 42% of parents felt their children experienced frequent anxiety. But it’s not always clear what that catch-all word “anxiety” means, especially given the long waits many children face for assessment by an NHS specialist. It’s a sensitive subject around which Robson treads audibly carefully.

“I think society is better for being accepting of, ‘Look, it’s OK to say I’m struggling.’ I think we would all recognise that we are better off in a world where you don’t have to bottle things up,” he says, stressing that he doesn’t want to sound like a dinosaur. But still, it’s complicated. “Some young people are really, really struggling and need some help and support, and I don’t think anyone would deny that. Some young people might say that they’re socially anxious but not understand that this is perfectly normal, to walk into a room of 200 people and feel a bit anxious. You have not ‘got anxiety’, you are anxious.” He has, he notes, encountered children reportedly too anxious for school but seemingly comfortable enough in a crowd at Middlesbrough Football Club on weekends.

How does a parent tell the difference between normal childhood worries and something more serious? It’s important not to over-medicalise children’s emotions, says Stevie Goulding, co-manager of the parent helpline at mental health charity Young Minds. Being anxious about exams, for example, is normal and even healthy: “It helps you to focus, to get that adrenaline pumping.”

But if anxiety persists when exams are over, or lasts for more than four to six weeks with no obvious trigger, or spills over into home life and activities children normally enjoy, there might be cause for concern. If a child is actively resisting going to school, Goulding recommends sticking to the usual morning routine regardless. “Wake up with the expectation that they get up for school, have their breakfast, get their uniform on, while having awareness that they might not be able to leave the house.” Parents should try to establish exactly what’s worrying them – perhaps a particular lesson, teacher or friendship – and keep chasing any promised intervention by the school. Many children with special educational needs strive to maintain a normal facade in class and explode only when they get home, she points out, meaning teachers may not always realise how serious things are.

Fourteen-year-old Dilly comes across as articulate, charming and chatty over Zoom from home in Essex. The only clue as to the effort that may be costing her is that we’re talking on a Sunday morning, because by the end of a school day she’s too tired. Dilly is good at “masking”, or disguising her autistic traits to fit in, but it wears her out. “A lot of the time I don’t realise how big an effort I’m putting in. I only realise when I’m exhausted later and don’t have any patience and can’t think about anything,” she says cheerfully. In a crowded room, she says, she will feel hyper-aware of things others wouldn’t register – “people’s conversations, people coughing, sniffing, everything” – which can make it overwhelming.

Dilly’s school avoidance started at nursery. Can she describe how it feels? “Very anxious. I sort of build up in my head what it’s going to be – this is going to happen and if that happens, that’s going to happen – like a whole catastrophic thing.” Sometimes she starts worrying about the next day as soon as she gets home. “I’ll get stressed about what happens tomorrow, or I haven’t done this homework and the teacher’s going to get cross with me and then I’m going to get upset and this is going to happen. Sometimes there’s not a reason – most of the time there is.” Her ideal school would be “much more personal, shorter days, no homework and no tests”.

Dilly now attends a tiny independent school of only 100 pupils, geared to dealing with her autism and dyslexia. Though it’s still sometimes hard to make herself go in, she’s motivated by wanting to get some qualifications and fulfil her ambition of becoming a film producer. But, as her mother acknowledges, she’s arguably one of the lucky ones.

Stephanie Rocke’s son, Alton, was in year one when he stopped wanting to go to his Northamptonshire primary school. Always an anxious child, he began suffering what looked like panic attacks; his year two teacher suggested he might have some form of special educational need, though nobody was quite sure what (he’s since been diagnosed with ADHD and autism). Then, disastrously, lockdown hit. “He couldn’t engage at all in home learning,” Rocke says. “That’s when we started seeing the first signs of him hitting himself, calling himself stupid, getting frustrated. After a month we just gave up completely – it was too stressful for everyone.” It was only when school resumed that she realised how far behind he was.

He has an EHCP now with a “list of provisions a mile long”, which Rocke says the school simply couldn’t deliver. “They just say, ‘If we don’t have the staff available … ’” Every September, he would start out optimistic, only to wind up withdrawn by Christmas and in meltdown by March. By the spring of year five, she says, he wasn’t eating, sleeping or interacting with the family. “We kept getting told that he should be going to school, should be getting an education – we knew he wasn’t learning, but we felt we’d got to keep doing the right thing and sending him in, even though it didn’t feel like the right thing. And he just kept getting worse.” This March, the couple removed him; they are waiting to hear if he has got in to a school specialising in autism.

Rocke and her husband, who run their own business, have taken out loans to cover the cost of therapists, psychologists and solicitors to argue their case with the local education authority. Some SEND mothers she knows have given up work to home school. “That’s what happens – especially women, especially mothers. They have no career, no job, no lives outside their children because they care for them full-time. It’s shocking.”

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Suzie is one of those mothers. Her eldest, 16-year-old Amelia, started struggling in social situations in year three of primary. “She started describing herself as an alien on planet Earth: she’d hide in the loos,” Suzie recalls. It was the family GP who first mentioned autism. “She was having to put so much energy into holding it all together at school, it was like a Coke bottle that’s been shaken: if you take the top off, it explodes everywhere.”

Jill Wright (on left) and Marie Beale, head and deputy head of Whitefield primary school, Liverpool.
‘We have to support families to overcome barriers’: Jill Wright (on left) and Marie Beale, head and deputy head of Whitefield primary school, Liverpool. Photograph: Jane MacNeil/The Guardian

Moving Amelia to a small private school helped initially, but by year seven she was self-harming and saying she didn’t want to live. Just before the first lockdown, her parents began home schooling her.

Meanwhile her younger sister Evie, now 13, was showing signs of distress. “Lockdown really unsettled her and she struggled to go back – we know now it was because she really liked the much calmer environment at home. It showed families there’s another way of doing this. We don’t have to put them through the hell of school every day.” When lockdown ended and Evie returned to school, she had trouble sleeping. Then she stopped eating. “In May 2022 she also turned round and said to us, ‘I don’t want to be here any more.’ School has driven both our daughters to be suicidal,” says Suzie, who gave up her job in the wine trade to watch over her daughters and hasn’t worked since.

Both girls are now back in school. Evie, who has been diagnosed with ADHD, generalised anxiety disorder and autism, is well enough to attend the same small independent college as her sister and their local education authority eventually agreed to pay their fees on the grounds that no suitable state setting is available. “Every single step of the way we’ve either had to pay for the help we needed or fight horribly for it,” Suzie says. “I’m very lucky we don’t need me to rush back to work. We do have the resources to fight for our kids. But so many parents don’t and that’s why so many kids go missing. They can’t cope, there’s nothing else and nobody to help them.”

All three families belong to a support network run by Square Peg and Not Fine in School, which swelled rapidly last summer ahead of the first term back with no allowances made for Covid – and pressure to get attendance back on track. “We had [then education secretary] Gavin Williamson saying, ‘We’ve relaxed the measures, everybody back to normal’ but you can’t treat a population like a machine that’s on or off,” says Square Peg’s Ellie Costello. More than a third of families in its Facebook group have children with SEND, she says, and some battled for years to get EHCPs, only to find the promised support isn’t forthcoming. Yet the law requires them to send their children to school anyway, or risk being taken to court for nonattendance (prosecutions brought by councils have doubled in less than a year, according to the Ministry of Justice, with fines of up to £2,500 – like speeding tickets, they can be issued by magistrates in the parent’s absence). While some heads argue that prosecution is a valuable deterrent for otherwise uncooperative parents, Costello points to hard cases such as the lone parent who contacted her after being fined in absentia while undergoing chemotherapy. “She got home to see that the hearing had happened and she owed £800 plus costs. If you don’t open your mail, or are on your own and struggling, these notices get lost.” Some of the parents she meets have been accused of being “difficult” or adversarial by their children’s schools, she says. “But why do people become these things? Because they’re not listened to, or they feel judged or blamed.”

As children’s commissioner, it is De Souza’s job to listen. A warm, dynamic steelworker’s daughter from Scunthorpe, until early 2021 she ran an academy trust famous for its hard-driving “no excuses” philosophy. But the stories she has heard from children in this job seem to have shifted her perspective. Immediately after being appointed, she held a consultation about how Covid had affected children. “It’s really seared on my mind, some of the conversations I had going round the country in March 2021, talking to very socially confident youngsters who you would have thought would be fine but who said, ‘Basically my world stopped,’” she says. “I talk to hundreds of children every month, and they will all talk about this. We have really underestimated it.”

Initially, she assumed any anxieties about returning to school would fade relatively quickly. But the more she studied attendance data in that first year back, the more it worried her. In hindsight, De Souza thinks children needed more help readjusting to the outside world. “We should have been concerned with children before it was, bang, back into the classroom, into exams. We should have been opening up school buildings, public buildings, got our youth workers and said, ‘Children have taken an unbelievable hit, we should be getting them out, having some fun.’ I never thought I’d hear myself saying that,” she says, laughing. “There’s room in schools for fun, for play, for thriving communities.”

It’s not, she stresses, that she has abandoned the drive for educational excellence. “The golden thread right through my career has been ensuring kids from the most disadvantaged areas get the opportunities. It’s just how and what you need to do to achieve that. I have been able to see more widely, and see even better ways to do that. I realise that we’re not islands.” Over the summer she discussed with GPs, police and others how they could cooperate in getting missing children back to school. “We need the NHS not to be issuing children with multiple disabilities with appointments on four different days. We need all the services to be seeing attendance for what it is, a proxy for children’s wellbeing.” School is, she says, critical not just for educational reasons – children with good attendance records do better in GCSEs and A-levels than those without – but for mental health, with research suggesting teenagers in particular are happier when they’re around their peers. Sadly, it’s also critical for some children’s safety. She still wonders whether six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, who died at the hands of his father and stepmother in lockdown, might have lived under a teacher’s watchful eye.

Summarising her findings for MPs earlier this year, De Souza identified unmet special educational needs, mental health and young carers missing school to look after their parents as key problems with attendance. A recent government green paper on improving provision was full of good ideas, she says, but needs boosters under it: “My worry is the funding for that is two years down the line – we need it now.” Though government plans to train mental health leads in schools are welcome, she says, NHS children’s and adolescent mental health services aren’t coping with a rise in demand either: “It takes funding, it needs a proper plan.” (A spokesperson for the Department of Education said it recognised that the pandemic had affected children’s mental health and that some faced greater barriers to attendance than others, adding: “That’s why we are ensuring pupils with SEND receive the provision they require through new national standards and earlier intervention, alongside reforms to the SEND system that will give families greater confidence that their children will be able to fulfil their potential through improved mainstream provision in their local area.”)

But schools can help, De Souza thinks, by teaching strategies for managing anxiety. Visiting a secondary school in Bolton where a staggering 30 local parents had died of Covid, she expected to find the pupils traumatised; but instead they talked about how teachers had helped them support each other through tough times. “These children were in the worst situations and they were finding a way to grow through it and not let it hold them back.” The key, she argues, is fostering emotional resilience, or the ability to bounce back from difficult experiences. And that’s what lies behind a pilot project on attendance now under way in a deprived part of Liverpool, a city that has seen its share of hard times.

On a sunny morning in Whitefield primary school, the playground is full. Three small girls are chalking pictures on the tarmac under headteacher Jill Wright’s window, while other children play handball or career around in toy cars. Wright introduced longer breaktimes after realising how much children had missed out on playing together during lockdown. But, crucially, her teachers don’t just supervise; they join in. “The staff here teach play,” Wright explains. “They go out and play to make those relationships with the children.”

Relationships are key at Whitefield, a so-called trauma-informed school – one based on understanding how childhood trauma affects development – serving a proud but deeply deprived neighbourhood. Pupils speak 30 languages between them, a third have SEND and almost half are eligible for pupil premium; some have had difficult early lives. But Wright is fiercely ambitious for them and so, she says, are their parents. The school has above average attendance for the area. “I can’t think of any of our families who don’t want the absolute best for their children, who don’t have the same aspirations they’d have if they lived in the [more affluent] south end of the city. It’s that some face different barriers we have to support them to overcome.” As we walk through calm, orderly classrooms and corridors twinkling with fairy lights, she explains how the school has been geared to reduce anxiety levels. The year six classroom feels almost homelike, with padded seats and a comfy sofa. If a child is absent, teachers tell them when they return that they’re part of the school family and it’s not the same without them. There are no detentions for bad behaviour but, Wright insists, “That’s not to say everyone does what they like.”

Instead her deputy Marie Beale has led a programme within school teaching children to regulate their emotions, helping them calm themselves when they’re anxious or angry and settle down to learning. Feelings are colour-coded – the red zone is for anger or fear, yellow for anxiety or over-excitement, blue for sadness – to help children identify emotions and understand that they can change zones by using simple strategies such as counting slowly back from 10, playing outside or discussing their feelings with a grownup. Last year Beale began training parents to use these strategies at home, funded by the Leeds-based charity Shine (which works with schools across the north to close the gap between disadvantaged and better off children).

“Instead of coming in saying, ‘He’s really angry this morning’ they can say, ‘He’s in the red zone, I’ve tried to get him in, I don’t know what to do,’” Beale says. Previously, parents might end up shouting at children to go to school in desperation, but now they have other tools. “Parents who have done the work on emotions, they understand the children are not being awkward.”

Yet as at Grangefield, the rules are very clear. Failure to call in and explain absence from school or its attached nursery prompts a call or home visit, and parents are fined for taking term-time holidays. If children are off sick, the school’s warm and motherly family liaison officer, Marguerite Young, will use her judgment on whether to call parents and gently try to find out if complaints of tummy ache might be masking something else. “If you know the child, you know the family, you can speak to Mum and say, ‘Do you think this is anxiety?’ and we will get to the root of it,” she explains. Sometimes she’ll offer to fetch a child herself in the morning, and some pupils sit with her for 10 minutes before the day starts, to calm themselves. The idea is to do whatever it takes to get anxious children in, so absence doesn’t become a habit; parents are reminded that lessons build on each other, so if a child misses one day, the next will be harder. But the key is winning families’ trust, Young says. “They know me and I know them, they can ring me on my mobile if they’re having a bad morning.”

The whole approach, Wright adds, is to walk a mile in parents’ shoes rather than blaming them if they can’t get their children in. “It’s easy to sit in judgment and say, ‘You’ve got to do this, you’re the parent, it’s your responsibility.’ If you say that without underpinning it with support for the child or the parent, you’re just adding pressure to an already pressured situation.”

While her methods could easily be caricatured as chalk to the more robust cheese offered by Grangefield academy, visiting both reveals not just the hidden nuances but how closely each approach is tailored to local need. Michael Robson acknowledges some communities might find his home visits intrusive; Jill Wright accepts what works in her small primary, where teachers can get to know all the families, might not suit a big, anonymous secondary. But primaries can, she argues, help secondaries by ingraining good habits early on. (Shine’s CEO, Helen Rafferty, says research shows children who attend nursery aged two go on to have better school attendance records when they’re older.) It’s by starting with the youngest children that attendance seems most likely to be cracked in the end. But that isn’t much comfort to the families falling by the wayside now.

If Millie’s mother Sarah could write education policy, she says wistfully, she’d throw “all the money in the world” at training teachers in neurodiversity. As it is, she and her husband sometimes fantasise about dropping out of the system. “We go on Rightmove and say, ‘Let’s buy a plot of land in the middle of nowhere, just move there and give up on everything and everyone, and live our lives and be safe,’” she sighs. “But in reality, that’s not the way. It’s getting the people who have the power to make things change.”

The headline of this article was amended on 4 September 2023 to refer to England rather than Britain.

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