If you’d asked me ten years ago about my opinions on school-refusal I’d have been quite frank and said it was something done by feral kids as a result of poor parenting. Nowadays however I find myself in this very position, I am the parent of a school refuser. I’m not the sort of parent I pictured 10 years ago, I gave up work to stay home and raise my children, we were fortunate enough to be able to give them what they needed and wanted, they had holidays and technology but most importantly they had my time. School refusal wouldn’t have happened to parents like us in my mind 10 years ago. I guess I was narrow-minded, I had no experience of raising children who were old enough to really refuse school, I thought of school refusal as a bad homes issue. It isn’t, not by any means, and I’ve seen lots of parents in a similar position who are blamed and persecuted for their kids not being okay at school.
Looking back our son never loved school. We would often drag him in upset and leave him crying because we’re almost conditioned to believe that school is the only way for kids to succeed in life so we push them to go, and for most kids they do love it, and that’s great. Once at school it’s the teacher’s job to keep them there and try settle them down for a day of learning and socialising. They don’t do this out of malice, but I do believe it sets in motion a chain of negative experiences – upset, feeling out of control and restraint for example that eventually causes the child to become disengaged from the education system.
Our son was diagnosed with Aspergers in school, it was clear from nursery that he was very different from his peers, choosing to sit with his back to people than join in, watching the class circles from the other side of the classroom, and generally having a really hard time. I knew nothing at all about the Autism spectrum when it was first suggested to us by his school, we were already struggling to cope with the problems he had at home and every healthcare professional he saw must have been able to see he was Autistic but chose to do nothing about it, it really was scarily obvious when I look back. School we felt was our respite from him. It gave us 6 hours to recharge our batteries and be able to leave the house without constant meltdowns. We could go shopping and not have to leave because the sight of the stores toilet doors caused him to lose the plot completely.
He would come home every day and his emotions would be everywhere, he would stim, he would play with water and flood our house, he would be angry and he didn’t sleep. I guess looking back they were all warning signs that he wasn’t coping with the demands of school life. We needed the break whilst he was at school though to help deal with the emotions when he got back. It was a vicious cycle and at that point home-education was most definitely not an option for us.
We got a lot of support from primary, by year 2 they had applied for a statement of special educational needs. He was granted 30.75 hours just in time for him going into year 3 and from then until the end of his time there he had 1:1 all day every day with the same person. They put in place social skills groups, friendship groups and other interventions to help him succeed. He was always encouraged to try things outside his comfort zone such as swimming lessons and even a 2 night school trip. He really blossomed and had many friends, but he still hated going to school. His refusal looked behavioural, he would kick, punch and bite as I tried to drag him up the drive, it got worse with the arrival of his baby brother in 2015.
The time came for him to go to high school. This was a very difficult time for us as we weren’t convinced this was the right school for him, but we live on the coast and there isn’t another high school for 11 miles. He wanted to go with his friends and we felt he deserved to give it a try. We tried to iron out any issues before he started, make sure everything would be perfect and in place by the time he started. They were aware of his refusal issues with school but we were reassured that they understood and could help. Quickly he began to refuse, he missed his second week completely and he was put on a reduced time-table. This was great and only meant to be supportive, but he takes things very literally, so when school said “Monday you only need to come in and do the one lesson, more if you want” in his head that meant “Monday do one lesson then leave”. That was fine and we worked with it and soon got him back to going, now and again. They put things in place so if he felt he couldn’t be in class he could go elsewhere. I felt positive that they really wanted to help.
Not even 6 months in we were informed that the ‘Parent Support Advisor’ in school had took it upon herself to refer us to the educational welfare department. Now I could understand if I wasn’t in school every week trying to find a solution, if I wasn’t dragging him in only for them to mark him as not there because none of us could get him to go past the reception area. The woman had never so much as spoken to us. We were now on the path for prosecution if things didn’t improve. I honestly felt betrayed. We sat in numerous meetings with overpaid EWO’s (Education Welfare Officers) who were being paid a decent amount of money to sit and tell us what we already knew. Their favourite phrase was “you could be prosecuted”. As if their constant reminder was somehow going to be the answer to our years of problems. We listened to them quoting false laws to us, telling us how we should punish our sons refusal by giving him nothing until he decided school was for him (we tried, it doesn’t work). They admitted there was nothing they could offer to help, but yet we were expected to be “working with them” to resolve his attendance issues. I can see why some parents struggle with their own mental health issues when forced into a corner like this. Some parents have to leave their jobs over it. I work in school myself (his old primary) and the fear of prosecution weighed heavily on me. I know only too well how capable he is and I want only the best for him. Unfortunately as of now, part way through year 8, his attendance is currently sat at 67%. I’m waiting for the inevitable letter reminding us of our responsibilities as his parents and demanding we go and explain ourselves at more pointless meetings. I am looking into the chances of having EOTAS named on his EHC Plan rather than his current school because it just isn’t working, but realistically we’re going to end up de-registering and taking responsibility for educating him ourselves, I just know it. I actually like the idea of home-educating him, but I don’t want to feel pushed into it.
I am thankful we have an education system, free to all, and I have one child who has gone all the way through, one in her first year of high school and one in reception year. Its become clear though that it is not the right system for everyone. This high school just cannot meet our needs for our son, but the only alternative is special school which he is not severe enough to go to. There are no options for children in the middle. The system needs reworking to become a fairer system for all, we need schools for everyone because mainstream simply does not suit every child. We’re lucky to be in a position to provide him with education at home, not everybody forced to take the same route is as lucky as us. It would not be the easy option for us to take, but I honestly don’t know where else we can go.