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.