There are no easy answers to school refusal

5 May 2019, 5:00

School refusal may be a little more understood that when it was identified in the 1930s, but we still haven’t come up with any effective or pragmatic solutions, says Fran Morgan

I didn’t choose to be an expert on school refusal; it chose me. When our daughter refused to go to primary school our main concern was to find out what was wrong and decide (ideally with the help of professionals) what we could do to help her. Pretty quickly we realised that the Department for Education (DfE) and Ofsted agenda (“every child deserves an education” which translates to “get her to school, whatever it takes”) contradicted our gut instincts for time, flexibility, patience and understanding.

The move to secondary school triggered a second episode and a two-year battle, with a tribunal (conceded by the local authority days before the court case), to secure the right support.

School refusal was first identified in the 1930s, when psychiatrists noticed a difference between school refusers – who were generally well-behaved, above-average academically and free of anti-social behaviour – and typical truants.

Our understanding has advanced to a limited extent, but it has so far failed to provide us with effective and pragmatic solutions that work for schools, children and their families. It’s a complex issue, and a growing problem.

The term school refusal isn’t really helpful since it implies wilful choice, but it has become the term most commonly used. It is, however, more useful to consider how extreme levels of anxiety may be triggered by diagnosed or suspected special needs, bullying, or other harmful or traumatic experiences.

School refusal isn’t a helpful term as it implies wilful choice

While problems may be centred around school or home life, the end result is the same – children can’t cope and withdraw from school. They need the education system to recognise that anxiety that interferes with their day-to-day living is a debilitating mental health condition requiring support and reasonable adjustments. Many children also mask their anxiety and distress. It is neither effective nor acceptable to simply demand that they return to school.

School refusal is a strong indicator of mental health and SEND needs, but we don’t have any data to evidence the scale of the problem. Current DfE school attendance codes, the obvious route for data collection, do not identify school refusers.

However, a national support group for the parent/carers of school refusers, Not Fine In School (NFIS), now has a membership of 6,000 on its closed Facebook group. And it is growing by more than 800 a month.

For parents, the vague guidelines, inconsistent response and the threat of fines or prosecution that arise from unauthorised absence add significant pressure to an already challenging situation.

A NFIS survey of more than 1,600 members (May 2018), gives an indication of what parents experience when their child’s school attendance becomes a concern. Sixty-seven per cent had been put under pressure to force their child into school, yet 59 per cent said this had made the situation worse. Ninety-two per cent thought that their child’s school attendance difficulties were related to undiagnosed/unsupported SEND and 55 per cent felt blamed for their child’s attendance issues. Twenty-five per cent of parents had been reported to social services and 18 per cent had been accused of fabricating or influencing their child’s illness.

School refusal is a complex issue with no easy answers. Schools are facing huge challenges, particularly in relation to SEND, and the inflexibility of the education system fails to recognise that one size does not fit all.

However, we have to find better ways to support school refusers and their families without compromising either their well-being or their education.

My wish list has three main aims:
1. New legislation, including a new absence code for school refusal that evidences the scale of the problem and alleviates engaged parents from the threat of prosecution.

2. Research to identify effective school refusal strategies that work for children, parents and mainstream schools.

3. National guidance, and a flexible “toolkit” for school leaders, to ensure a consistent and inclusive response that promotes school partnership with parents.

Your thoughts

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  1. Lynda Jones

    Having been through the procedure with a school refusal child , i felt not enough consideration from local authority was considered on the information I provided to them stating reasons for my sons school refusal . A transition from primary to secondary school had failed & no support was provided for my sons learning difficulties / medical needs .
    My son couldn’t cope he sat in classes crying out to be helped but he felt invisible that no one approached him or seen that he hadn’t wrote anything on paper he was given & gave back .
    I contacted school asking about support he was supposedly getting & was lied to for his first 2 academic years . Teacher responsible admitted she failed his transition due to her being new to school & replacing another teacher . Pastoral Care Teacher had lied saying his support was in place & she placed this on his data records . Also placed him on p/t timetable for 5 months where he attended a timeout booth to read a book ( can’t read ) with little supervision . Refused him a referral to CAMHS saying they refused her referral which was later found out when my GP made the referral & he was assessed by them & reported severe school anxiety . During this time we were referred to Children’s Reporter on a false attendance report which nvr had any record of p/t timetable ? Reporter accepted the referral without investigation & I only knew about the referral when I received a hearing date & Social Worker knocking at my door . A CSO was placed on my son to attend school this being after I denied grounds & been to court where the false attendance record was accepted .
    The effect this had on my son was sickening when he hadn’t done wrong . He was punished for his dyslexia , dyspraxia , severe anxiety & a type 1 diabetic . All which wasn’t a concern to those who failed his support which has had an effect on his national working level & not to participate in any SQA exams at this moment . School have failed him as well as punish him !! The system is so corrupt & failing young people an education .. Home Education is only way forward for our future generation to reach their goals & lifelong skills ….

  2. Rachel Spurr

    I think you have made some fantastic points there, that I, and I’m sure most parents in this situation can perfectly relate to. There is however another point I feel should be raised here and that’s the issue of schools now being academies, which are unaccountable to anyone and can refuse to make much needed adjustments because no one can make them. This is definitely true in our case, where I believe that if they had done this then our situation could have been improved. Instead we are coming up to almost 2 years of sporadic attendance at best in a school that receives funding for my son but provides almost no education.

  3. Jean Campbell

    I have read your comments with interest as my grandchild is the ‘Square Peg’, his previous school knew of his problems but just ‘excluded’ him every time he attended until we got tired of taking him he had 36 days schooling during the September to Christmas term, was excluded from the school overnight activities because there was no assistant for him, even though he had been awarded an Sen for 30 hours per week. She kept being used for other children.
    I could go on and on, he now attends a special need facility that is locked as soon you go in, and complains bitterly, my son and I take him on a 31 mile trip each way adding two hours to his schooling day.
    More needs to be done, more facilities are needed, I feel as if a lot more could be done, BUT not unless people join together and fight for their children they are after all our FUTURE.

  4. Saw you referenced on BBC today. I am an autism researcher at the Centre for Autism Research at the University of Bath and trustee of the John and Lorna Wing Foundation, London. We are currently conducting research into this topic with colleagues from University of Reading and Donaldson’s Trust Linlithgow, Scotland, which runs an in/outreach programme for these children (website above). As part of this we have also co-funded an animated film produced by the children. Happy to share our work and ideas and to learn from and work with you. I am also a consultant at AT-Autism London http://www.atautism.org

  5. Worried father

    Not sure if anyone on here is still listening, but hopefully someone can advise. My 14 year old son ( transitioned from being my daughter last year), (me and his mother are separated and he lives with her) , he was missing school a lot before lockdown, and has refused to go to school since they reopened, and refused to engage in any home schooling during the lockdown period. His education has now entirely stopped. The school has been very understanding, doing everything they can to ease him back in. He has had loads of support from CAMHS, but neither him or his mother put much of their advice or guidance into action. I want to know how far does this go? Can a child just simply refuse to go to school, and that is the end of their education? Or do things at some point reach a head where child protection or social services or whoever get involved? Is the child in danger of being taken into care?

    • I hope things have improved for you and your child? There is support out there, go to
      http://www.notfineinschool.co.uk and look under their resources section of their website. Join their Parent Support Facebook page. Contact your local SENDIAS or Barnardos advocacy service, IPSEA or independent advocacy service. Hang in there, you and your child have rights and are entitled to support.

  6. I’m wondering what all school refusers do with their time when not at school?

    My son has not put pen to paper since 2017… until the last two weeks!

    In four years he has not only refused school, but isolated himself from the world becoming highly depressed and refusing to eat and talking about suicide. He acquired a diagnosis of ASD & ADHD. Is very disruptive at school and a live wire if on the rare occasion he leaves the house … but although a slow progress, he is now doing some school work every day, exercising, helping round the house, socialising with us and his eating and sleeping issues seem to have become more normal than they have been for a long time.
    If you are interested in taking part in a study which would explore the possibility of your child returning to education without any fuss. Please show your interest by contacting my website http://www.plantatreefor2020.co.uk