Face it, some kids don't like school

Contrary to staffroom myth, school phobia is a genuine condition that can be overcome only if teachers and parents listen to - and believe - the suffering child, writes Greg Bellmore

Certain educational topics instantly make your hackles rise. School phobia is one of them. The staffroom psychologists will regale you with such insightful comments as "there's no such thing" or "they just need to pull themselves together". I've often challenged these arguments, but one point usually ends the ensuing debate: I was a school phobic.

Responses range from embarrassed confusion to comments such as "aren't we all". My phobia began from the moment I started nursery. As soon as I entered the school I was overwhelmed by one unrelenting, self-consuming feeling: I didn't want to be there. That feeling stayed with me for the next eight years. Each morning I knew that I had to go to school, but I just couldn't face it. I would cry, I would beg, I would pretend to be ill, anything not to have to go. My parents went through the daily hell of forcing me to.

My anxiety and fear would disappear once I was on the premises and at my desk. I worked hard, I behaved, I never truanted. Despite this, I would wake up the next day and it would start all over again.

I can't remember how or when it stopped, but it had gone by the time I got to high school. My parents and I overcame it with little or no support from the educational system; all I can remember is an appointment with an educational psychologist. My abiding memory is of her incomprehension. I was only seven, but it was obvious to me that she did not understand or did not believe what I was saying. After about 15 minutes, I gave up trying to explain myself and we stared at each other for a while. I never saw her again.

If I hopped into a psychiatrist's chair now, I'm sure they would say the reason I became a teacher was to put my childhood demons to rest. They might be right. I have since met a few pupils who are undoubtedly school phobics; the symptoms they describe are almost exactly the same as mine were.

One was in my first form. When I suspected the reason for his absences, I met with him and his mother and it was like going back in time and seeing me with my mum. I passed on my concerns to my superiors, but little was done. So each day I would go to his house before school and, between us, his mother and I would persuade him to come to school. In the car I would talk to him and try to calm him down.

I listened. Bit by bit we overcame his phobia; his mother later thanked me. One comment stuck in my mind. We were the only two who had believed him; in believing him we were able to overcome his problems.

I'm not so naive as to believe every pupil who claims to be phobic is. But the condition exists and we can't help those who have it until we believe them.

Greg Bellmore is the co-ordinator for gifted and talented pupils at Castle Vale school and specialist performing arts college, Birmingham

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