The sorry fate of the 'school refuser'

Marj Adams

SCHOOL is argu-ably a relatively agreeable place for most pupils. The majority move through primary and secondary with an increasing understanding of how the system works.

Early on they suss that a degree of conformity is required to survive with dignity. Like sausage factories the product moves on the conveyor belt until it's clingfilm wrapped at the end. Anything not judged uniform is binned.

Take a young girl I know. She wrote a letter of protest regarding a matter of school policy and was called to account because the teacher thought it was cheeky. What was the result? This articulate and questioning pupil learnt that expressing her individual view was not acceptable and therefore she should remain silent. Too much of the old I tellt ye, I tellt ye remains in Scottish schools.

It can be miserable enough then for so-called "normal" kids (if the politically correct police can allow me to use that term). But what about youngsters who have a real problem with school - the label "school refuser" doesn't cover the depth and range of these problems but it will do for the purposes of my comments.

Schools can react with wounded and self-righteous shock if they like but most fail these pupils. Worse, the wider world fails them also. The treatment offered is either bog standard or non-existent.

What do parents do when a child persistently refuses to attend school? They worry frantically and desperately look for help. Meanwhile the school is probably thinking that the child is no more than a truanting brat. Professional help is urgently required but everyone around is shoving their fingers in their ears.

Does the professional help exist? Someone may convince me otherwise but I don't think it does. The mental health services may just about pass muster for adults but, for children, help for mental health problems is pie in the sky. The chances of a refuser being referred to a child psychiatrist with the necessary expertise are slim. They may spend many hours with an educational psychologist who may well write lengthy reports. More than likely no cause will be unearthed and no cure suggested. The recommended course of action will be to try to reintroduce the child to school.

Brilliant! It's what everyone in the sorry saga wants. Yet the chances are that it will be handled badly. There won't be enough consultation. The child will slope reluctantly into school and will probably be parked in a corner in the support for learning base or in the library. If they are lucky someone may pass the time of day with them or they might watch a video but they will not receive proper help from people who know what they are doing. It's a hopeless nightmare.

In the better schools there might be a behaviour support teacher who offers an experienced ear and a shoulder to cry on but this is down to good luck rather than good management. A psychiatrist from Yorkhill Children's Hospital in Glasgow tells me that mental health problems in children are on the increase but there is no national policy to address this.

It's not surprising then that schools are struggling and parents are cracking up. I recall the tension when my elder daughter, aged six, refused to go to school. Thankfully the problem was resolved within a week but I have not forgotten the turmoil of the household during these few days. No wonder families feel that they are riding up and down on escalators from which there is no alighting.

I do not have the professional expertise to offer solutions and my woeful inadequacy is replicated in virtually every teacher in the land. Schools should be publicising that message of lack of resources rather than indulging in happy-clappy rhetoric about how well they can cope. A heated debate is long overdue.

Any ideas?

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Marj Adams

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