'It was damaging him': the spiralling number of children refusing to go to school


For Jen Smith, the autumn term started, as always, with the prospect of managing the delicate process of her children’s school attendance. Both autistic, they were in mainstream classes until two years ago; now in specialist provision, they still faced deep-seated anxiety about school.

“My son’s anxiety began when he needed a disabled toilet key at school, but in the time it took to get one he felt he couldn’t go to the toilet and that is when the anxiety started building,” she says.

There were screaming and meltdowns on the way to school, she says, then more on the way home after he felt ashamed that he had been unable go in.

“I was trying every which way to help, then realised I had to stop coercing because it was damaging him,” she says. “But you are left in an empty place. I felt I could drop dead of stress at one point just because I couldn’t resolve the situation.”

Smith is one of thousands of parents of “school refusers”, children with mental health barriers about attending school. Their difficulties are compounded by Ofsted rules requiring schools to meet certain attendance levels to be rated “good” or “outstanding”, with parents threatened with fines and prosecutions if their children don’t attend.

The most recent government figures suggest that there are about 770,000 persistent absentees in England. In 2018-19, 60,000 of these young people were missing more than half their schooling, up from 39,000 three years earlier.

Typically, this type of anxiety starts around transition to secondary school, but for some children it is in primary school. One parent, Anna Allen, from Essex, said her 10-year-old son’s problems began when he was moved into a different class from his friends, and he started talking about the pressure of schoolwork and not feeling safe in class. With the school, she is now helping him manage a more flexible day, with the option to stay at home if his anxiety is too great.

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“When his anxiety is really bad, he will wake up in the morning, go into a panic attack and start retching and hyperventilating. Since we have changed our approach, allowing him to not even think about going into school when he feels like that, things have improved,” she says. “But it teeters on a knife-edge. It only needs one adult to make him feel pressured and it will tip back other way. Initially, the school deflected responsibility and implied poor parenting, but they are now listening and understand this anxiety is real.”

Allen is taking a year’s leave from her job as a speech and language therapist to support her son’s education at home if necessary, but says loss of learning takes second place to his wellbeing. “He will not learn unless his mind is happy and relaxed. I am speaking out because I want to represent more than our family, and to make the education system more understanding rather than a machine that treats children as numbers instead of human beings.”

Smith and Allen are involved with two lobbying and support groups, Square Peg, which advocates for children who don’t fit in to the conventional schooling model, and Not Fine in School, which has a closed Facebook group of 13,000 parents. Campaigners believe their numbers are growing because of increased pressure on school performance and cuts to support services.

Ellie Costello is one of those finding it difficult to access these services for her child. “My son’s reports always said he was a good, polite boy. He was compliant in school and struggling with underlying undiagnosed chronic illness,” she says. “In the end, because he was challenged and pushed so much to attend, his mental health crashed.

“If he were an adult, it would be categorised as a nervous breakdown. The pressure on all of us has been unbelievable. Between concern for my son’s wellbeing, the pressure on our marriage, the school sending threatening letters and apologising for doing it, I would go home and fall on my knees through the stress and the shame I was failing him as a parent.

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“We were clinging on the cliff edge for so long. At the point I let go and said I won’t force him into school, the systems finally got going and we started to access some help. When your child is in a state of emotional collapse, is so traumatised due to their needs being unrecognised, you are so far away from that child being able to learn, nothing else matters. You don’t give an iota about missing learning.”

And the Covid pandemic may have raised the stakes even further. Since most schools reopened fully in September, attendance has become a proxy for the success of what the prime minister, Boris Johnson, calls the nation’s moral duty to get children back into the classroom, with government guidance urging prosecution of parents whose children don’t attend.

A new report from Ofsted last week showed that, in half the schools inspectors visited, some children had been removed altogether because of fears about the virus. Not Fine in School has had nearly 1,000 new members join since the start of term, 687 in September alone.

The campaigners believe that urging the prosecution of parents whose children are persistently absent could be counterproductive. They say the first lockdown provided respite for children such as theirs, giving them the opportunity to work from home without fear of their parents being prosecuted.

Polly Sweeney, who has been working with parents on a legal challenge to the existing categorisation of absent children, said: “At the moment our attendance code is either authorised or unauthorised. If unauthorised, my experience is that parents are punished with no proper analysis of the underlying reasons, and children may spend significant periods out of school without alternative education provision being arranged.”

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One possible solution, she says, could be a special attendance code, which would bring support rather than punishment, for children with recognised mental or emotional barriers to school attendance.

“It is a concern that parents may be off-rolling children right now because they don’t want to face punishments, but are not receiving the support needed. That is a very vulnerable group of children. Home schooling works well for many children, but there may be other families who need the ongoing support of statutory services. Covid is really shining a light on these issues and offering an opportunity to question whether the system is working.”

Friday, 20 November, is Unicef World Children’s Day, and Square Peg will be launching a new collaboration with School Differently, another campaigning organisation. According to Fran Morgan, founder of Square Peg, one objective will be to find examples of good practice that may help school leaders manage attendance policy more compassionately.

But might recent Covid-related advances in digital education point to a new way forward? Ofsted noted last week that Covid absences were obliging schools to continue developing remote learning.

Karine George is a former headteacher, supporter of Square Peg, and consultant at Educate, based at University College London, which is looking at new ways of using technology in schools. She says: “Headteachers are under huge pressure from competing demands. Time needed to build relationships with parents and children has been eroded. Even if you know there is a problem and a child can’t come into school, you have your attendance target to meet.

“Covid has taught us that education can happen in a multitude of ways. For some people, going to school is really useful. But others can learn better without the school environment. We should not waste this crisis, but instead think more about all the educational mechanisms through which we can meet all children’s needs for their learning and their socialising.”



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