For a number of children school is not something that they are able to cope with and they refuse to go
There is incredibly sparse research and data on school refusal. Non-attendance is often looked at as a homogenous group, without separating out truants and school refusers, nor looking at the reasons for non-attendance. School refusers, unlike truants, make no pretence of going to school and there is an extremely high level of distress shared with their parents. There may be overlapping motivations for non-attendance. Some researchers, academics and individuals state that not wanting to be in school can be perfectly rational for a child and choosing not to do so by non-attendance should not be taken as a sign of any illness or problem. However, there does seem to be a number of children for whom it goes further than exercising rational choice.
Back in 2002 the National Phobics Society told the Guardian newspaper that it received around 20 calls a week from distraught parents. “It’s often misdiagnosed or put down as truancy.” Geraldine Adams, the then national schoolphobia representative for Education Otherwise, a parent network that provides support and information for those whose children are being educated out of school said that the difference between truants and school phobics was that school phobics wanted to stay at home, not out with friends. She said over half of school refusers had an undealt with additional need. She also flagged shyness and difficult life events such as a bereavement.
Parent support group ‘Not Fine in School’ (NFIS) has over 4,000 members in its Facebook forum and has carried out a questionnaire responded to by approximately 700 parents. We have used their figures and findings as representative of school refusers. They say factors are varied and include children not feeling safe in school, fear of leaving the security of the family home, bullying, sensory overload, illness or bereavement in the family, unmet special needs, health issues and the environment of the school. There is a correlation between suspected or diagnosed special needs and school refusal with 92% of parents who responded to a NFIS questionnaire who think that school attendance difficulties are related to SEND that are inadequately supported or unrecognised in school. However there have been worrying reports of high numbers of parents being accused of Fabricating or Inducing Illness (FII, formerly known as Munchausen syndrome by proxy) with almost one fifth of respondents reporting being accused of this.
The response to a child who is refusing to go to school very much depends on the individual school. In the best cases schools will work with parents and children to try to overcome problems. Measures can include alternative curriculums, a flexible approach to factors such as lateness, being allowed to leave class without a fuss if necessary, calm and quiet places provided for children to go if they feel under stress, key support staff, access to mental health support services and so on. NFIS says that schools which have these flexible approaches are less likely to have students with the initial problem and that, if it arises, this early intervention can be very effective.
However. not all schools are willing or able to take such steps. With reduced funding for support services, increased focus on attendance, zero tolerance of ‘bad’ behaviour, narrower curriculum and increased focus on exam results means schools can take a very hard line and insist on children being made to come to school, or parents find that instead of getting help they are seen as the problem. Since 2012 Ofsted has focused on pupils’ attendance records and can downgrade schools’ ratings, which discourages them from flexible approaches.
The government’s behaviour Tsar, Charlie Taylor, said primary schools would be ordered to focus ‘relentlessly’ on attendance. “Primary schools value their relationships with parents, for good reasons – but it means they are a bit too nice and fluffy when it comes to challenging parents on attendance.” Head teachers would be expected to fine parents and to ensure they didn’t keep them off for ‘minor ailments’.
55.5% of NFIS respondents said their parenting had been blamed, 24.9% had been referred to Social Services because of their child’s attendance difficulties.
The results illustrate the tendency to blame school attendance difficulties on poor parenting (55.5%) and/or children’s negative attitudes towards school (60.8%). 26.3% of parents reported that they have been threatened with a fine as a penalty for unauthorised attendance but only 2.5% have actually been fined.
The NFIS questionnaire found very low levels of trust of support staff. EWO were only viewed as helpful by 5.4% of respondents, school nurses by 7.5%, social workers by 10.2%. SENCOs, teachers and GPs were felt to be helpful by approximately one third of respondents. Social media support groups scored the highest with 66.7% finding them helpful. Parents were often given advice by professionals which was either inadequate, such as sticker reward charts, dismissive of the severity of the problem or which advised them to ignore their child’s distress and physically force them to go. 45% of parents in the survey state had forced their child to go to school, 59% of these felt doing so had made the situation worse, 36% said it didn’t help. “These are desperate children who are often in a very distressed state, and many demonstrate their distress in ways that would have to be experienced to be believed”, say NFIS
Parents report that professionals sometimes view the problem as resolved if the child is successfully managed into school. While children are sometimes able to control their behaviour in school, or don’t feel safe enough to show their real feelings they often have severe outbursts once home. (The name ‘Not Fine in School’ comes from the regularity of professionals saying the child is ‘fine’ when it was very clear to the parents that they were not.)
The 2002 Guardian article ‘Scared not Skiving’ reports that:
“What does help is that experts are agreed on one thing: the best thing you can do is to stop trying to pressurise your child to go to school. For while a child who had been forced back to school used to be considered a success story, research shows that two-thirds of such “successes” develop psychological problems – half of them severe – within three years.”
Some families are successful in getting appropriate help for their children, for a small number that means a therapeutic school. Many find that home education is the best way to provide their child with a suitable education, given the available options. Many parents in the home educating forums report their children having been severely damaged by the experience of trying to keep them in school.