There were screams and slumps on the way to school, she said, then more on the way home after he felt ashamed he couldn’t get in.
“I was trying every way to help, then I realized I had to stop coercing because it was hurting her,” she says. “But you are left in an empty place. I felt I could lose the stress at some point just because I couldn’t resolve the situation.
Smith is one of thousands of parents of “school refusals,” children with mental health problems entering school. Their difficulties are compounded by Ofsted’s rules requiring schools to meet certain attendance levels to be judged “good” or “exceptional,” with parents threatened with fines and prosecution if their children do not attend.
The most recent government figures suggest that there are around 770,000 persistent absentees in England. In 2018-2019, 60,000 of these young people missed more than half of their schooling, compared to 39,000 three years earlier.
Typically, this type of anxiety begins around the transition to high school, but for some children, it is in elementary school. Parent Anna Allen, from Essex, said her 10-year-old son’s problems started when he was transferred to a different classroom from his friends, and he started talking about the pressure schoolwork and not feeling safe in the classroom. With school, she now helps her manage a more flexible day, with the option of staying home if her anxiety is too great.
“When his anxiety is really severe, he wakes up in the morning, goes into a panic attack and starts to vomit and hyperventilate. Since we changed our approach, letting him not even think about going to school when he wants to, things have improved, ”she says. “But it’s wavering on a razor’s edge. He only needs an adult to make him feel pressured and he will tip the other way. The school initially shied away from responsibility and involved bad parenting, but now she listens and understands that this anxiety is real.
Allen takes a year off from his speech-language pathology job to support his son’s education at home if needed, but says the loss of learning takes a back seat to his well-being. “He will only learn if his mind is happy and relaxed. I speak up because I want to represent more than our family and make the education system more understanding rather than a machine that treats children like numbers rather than human beings.
Smith and Allen are involved in two lobbying and support groups, Square Peg, which advocates for children who do not fit the mainstream school model, and Not Fine in School, which has a closed Facebook group of 13,000 parents. Activists believe their numbers are increasing due to increased pressure on school performance and cuts to support services.
Ellie Costello is among those who have difficulty accessing these services for her child. “My son’s reports always said he was a good, polite boy. He was docile in school and struggled with an underlying, chronic, undiagnosed disease, ”she says. “In the end, because he was challenged and pushed so hard to attend, his sanity collapsed.
“If he was an adult it would be considered a nervous breakdown. The pressure on all of us has been incredible. Between the worry for my son’s well-being, the pressure on our marriage, the school sending threatening letters and apologizing for doing it, I would go home and fall to my knees because of the stress and shame for failing him as a parent.
“We have hung on the edge of the cliff for so long. The moment I let go and said I wouldn’t force him to go to school, the systems finally kicked in and we started to access help. When your child is in a state of emotional collapse, is so traumatized because his needs are not being recognized, you are so far away that this child can learn, nothing else matters. You don’t care about missing learning. ”
And the Covid pandemic may have raised the stakes even further. Since most schools fully reopened in September, attendance has become an indicator of the success of what Prime Minister Boris Johnson calls the nation’s moral duty to bring children back to the classroom, with the guidance of the government urging the prosecution of parents whose children do not. assist.
A new report from Ofsted last week showed that in half of the school inspectors visited, some children had been removed altogether due to fears about the virus. Not Fine in School has welcomed nearly 1,000 new members since the start of the term, including 687 in September alone.
Campaigners believe that urging prosecution of parents whose children are constantly absent could be counterproductive. They say the first lockdown provided respite for children like theirs, giving them the ability to work from home without fear of their parents being sued.
Polly Sweeney, who worked with parents on a legal challenge to the existing categorization of absent children, said: “At the moment, our attendance code is either allowed or not allowed. If not allowed, my experience is that parents are punished without a proper analysis of the underlying reasons, and children can spend long periods out of school without an alternative education offer being made. organized.
One possible solution, she said, could be a special attendance code, which would provide support rather than punishment, for children with recognized mental or emotional barriers to school attendance.
“It is concerning that parents are not being disturbed children at this time because they do not want to be punished, but do not receive the necessary support. They are a very vulnerable group of children. Home schooling works well for many children, but other families may need the continued support of statutory services. Covid really shines a light on these issues and provides an opportunity to question whether the system is working. ”
Friday, November 20 is UNICEF’s World Children’s Day, and Square Peg will launch a new collaboration with School Differently, another campaign organization. One of the goals, according to Fran Morgan, founder of Square Peg, will be to find examples of good practice that can help school leaders manage attendance policy with more compassion.
But could recent Covid-related advances in digital education point to a new way forward? Ofsted noted last week that Covid absences are forcing schools to continue to develop distance learning.
Karine George is a former Principal, Square Peg Supporter and Consultant at Educate, based at University College London, who is exploring new ways to use technology in schools. She says: “School leaders are under enormous pressure from competing demands. The time it takes to build relationships with parents and children has been reduced. Even if you know there’s a problem and a child can’t go to school, you still have your attendance goal.
“Covid has taught us that education can happen in so many ways. For some people, going to school is really helpful. But others can learn better without the school environment. We must not waste this crisis, but rather think more about all the educational mechanisms through which we can meet the needs of all children for their learning and socialization.