The children who refuse to go to school

19th January 1996 at 00:00
It may be rare but it is certainly real. As a teacher I have been directly involved in two cases of children who refused to go to school; I am now just becoming involved with a third.

Authorities may recognise "school phobia" as real enough, but they seem reluctant to make any special arrangements for school phobic children, treating them almost as if they have from some sort of disease. It reminds me of "shell shock" in the First World War. Soldiers were told either to "pull themselves together" and sent back to the trenches or risked being shot for desertion.

When Andrew was transferred to my school, his mother told me she was at her wits' end as to what to do with him. After much absenteeism from his local primary school due to "tummy aches" and "headaches", he had reached the point where he was flatly refusing to attend any longer.

I knew his small village school and its headteacher well and couldn't believe the school was the cause of his troubles.

I didn't question my colleague about why the parents were transferring him - their excuse was that Andrew should really have been in a Roman Catholic school, which mine was, and now he was older he could cope with the longer journey from home. The explanation was left at that.

Andrew settled down well and his troubles seemed to be over. His mother said he was "very happy" which we believed to be true until the day, two years later, that he left. On transferring to his new secondary, his old troubles began again. Nobody seemed to be able to explain why he didn't want to go to school.

In desperation, his mother asked me to give him private tuition at home. By then I had taken early retirement so we OK'd this with the authorities who helped by sending subject tutors to his home once or twice a week.

I never did manage to elicit from Andrew what went wrong for him. But eventually, he went on to a further education college, did very well with his GCSEs and is now going on to university.

I received a phone call a couple of years ago from another distressed parent with a school phobic child. She was a friend of Andrew's mother.

Ben was 14 and attending a public school as a day boy. One morning, he flatly refused to get up and go to school and told his mother that he had had his last day there.

She wanted me to be his private tutor at home - which I was for a while until he moved to a small, "human-scale education" school. From there he has gone on to a college of higher education (where he is now) and has turned out to be brilliant guitarist.

End of story - except this time I tried to find out from Ben what had been his troubles at school.

No, it wasn't bullying and yes, according to him, he had lots of friends and the staff were fine. It was, in his words, a growing feeling that school was pointless, a nonsense "until finally I couldn't stand it any longer".

Callum is a 13-year-old boy I know well. He started back to school this term and within days was finding excuses for not going. He offered the usual ailments - headaches, feeling sick, tummy ache. He complained that some of the children wasted time in class, "stopping us getting on". His father, a single working parent said he "MUST go to school".

Callum's difficulties have yet to be resolved, but again I know from talking to Callum that there is nothing particularly wrong with the school apart from his complaints about the time-wasters.

Are there any common denominators in all these cases apart from the very real physical symptoms? All three are sensitive boys, artistic and highly creative.

But I think their key characteristic is to do with perception. Their troubles are really inside themselves. They interpret external experiences in a certain way and are acutely affected.

We do know that the antennae of some artistic people are particularly finely tuned and ultra-sensitive to their external experiences. Is it that our institutions and our way of educating through conformity does not work for them?

James Joyce writes for all of them. In the story of his own artistic development, school emerges not as a help in this process but a hindrance.

I suspect that in the case of school phobia, as far as society is concerned, these children are an inconvenience. After all, they are a tiny minority and they are not, by their natures, creating havoc except, perhaps, within their own families .

I do not blame the individual schools in these cases but we could all think more about alternative ways of educating children. Are we stuck with only one way for all children as if this were the 11th Commandment?

Derek Chorley is the former head of a Roman Catholic primary school in the West Country

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