Written by Sara Forsyth, Headteacher of Alderwasley Hall School and Sixth Form
I read a news article last week on the BBC about a Derbyshire family who were being threatened with a fine for their son’s non-school attendance. The boy, a 15-year old student, has been diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder. This condition is often referred to as School Phobia or, I would argue, less helpfully – School Refusal. It’s generally diagnosed by a Child Psychiatrist but remains largely misunderstood by many schools who often don’t have the resources or capacity to explore the underlying reasons for a persistent non-attender in any real depth.
The article reminded me of the absolutely crucial need for young people to receive the right educational setting to meet their needs. And getting the right school as early in a child’s educational career as we can, is always a positive investment for the future.
School refusal: My experience as a Headteacher
As the Headteacher of an independent SEN school for young people with High Functioning Autism and associated anxiety, I am inundated with enquiries from parents who have a depressingly similar story: their child is currently out of school, spending long hours withdrawing from social contact outside of the home and this has been the case for often 12 months or more. Their child is usually keen to learn and clearly has the capacity to do so but becomes emotionally distressed at the thought of attending school. The experience that their child has had in school has left them feeling that there is no school placement for them and this can be a mindset that is incredibly hard to change.
Our experience is that it can often take weeks of patient, carefully planned, phased visits. We will start with a video of the school, viewed where they feel safe (in their own home). This then leads on to the child actually walking onto the school site. The visits will usually involve time with our school therapy dog (here’s Bramble in our grounds) and the length of time spent on site will gradually increase over time. Visits to actual classrooms are often the very last element of the plan before a child might begin to accept that they have a future within an educational setting. And that this marks the start of their new journey.
For the placement to have any chance of success there are some essentials that our experience tells us need to be implemented from day one:
1: The environment needs to be right
This means as a minimum having an environment with low noise levels and low levels of disruption and room to move around.
2: The group needs to be right
This means having small groups with high staffing ratios. The team working with the child may include specialised therapy team members (we employ Speech & Language Therapists, Occupational Therapists, a Psychotherapist and a Clinical Psychologist). It also means having an appropriate peer group. Children with Social Anxiety Disorder need to be surrounded by peers with similar abilities and needs so that they feel like they fit in. They already feel isolated from education so making them feel that they belong somewhere is key to a successful placement.
3: The Curriculum needs to be right
It’s crucial to have the right curriculum in place – one that offers a flexible, student-centred programme of study with an appropriate level of academic challenge that builds on success to improve self-esteem. These students often have a perception that they have failed at school and having a curriculum that both challenges them but offers success is vital to being able to change their perception.
In the BBC article, a solicitor commented that they are working with 20 families of vulnerable children with school attendance issues, who feel that they have no option other than to take legal action.
If the evidence I have just from the enquiries I receive reflects the national picture, then I suspect the figure across the UK is significantly higher - and is increasing year on year.
[NFIS Facebook Group stats from September 2019]
So often I find myself sat in an Educational Tribunal Hearing (usually after two or three postponements, but that’s a whole other story!) listening to a desperate parent pleading for a chance to be believed that all their child needs is the right school and they will flourish.
With the right school, they know that their child will fulfil their huge potential. They know that if placed in the right school their child will eventually contribute to society in a way that, if they’re left in an inappropriate placement they most certainly won’t. They know that if placed in the right school, they will avoid the deterioration in their mental health that will almost inevitably happen if they remain where they currently are.
To be clear, these parents are not saying that the school their child has been in is a bad school; it’s just not the right school for their child.
The mental health charity Mind has called for school refusal to be given more recognition in education. I’d argue that, until this happens and sufferers receive the appropriate placement to meet their complex needs, the numbers of young people out of school through anxiety about attending will only continue to rise.
To learn more about the importance of the right mental health provision in a school like ours, click here: https://senadgroup.com/alderwasley/videos/
To read the full BBC article click here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-derbyshire-49726011
I am the Headteacher of Alderwasley Hall School and Sixth Form and I have almost 25 years’ experience in SEND, in particular working with young people with Autistic Spectrum Disorders. Alderwasley Hall School and Sixth Form is an exceptional independent SEN school for young people with ASD and associated needs in Derbyshire.