When school is too scary

19th January 2007 at 00:00
As a teacher, Charlotte Morbey had always been sceptical about school phobia until her son threatened to jump from the window sill

Six months ago I de-registered my 13-year-old son from school. As a former teacher and head of year, home education had seemed a foolhardy thing to undertake. But as a parent, I had reached the end of the road with mainstream schooling.

I thought I knew about school phobia. In common with colleagues, I used the terms "school phobia" and "school refusal" interchangeably. I was sympathetic but sceptical. I felt it was probably exaggerated and pandered to by parents who colluded with difficult children for a quiet life.

Working closely with the education social worker for my year group, I knew attendance issues could cause intractable problems. We would call meetings and put plans in place, knowing even as we walked away from the room that it wouldn't work and the child would drift away again within days. I would make phone calls, attempt to cajole and persuade the child to come in, negotiate through car windows in some cases if they wouldn't get out. It was time-consuming, frustrating and unrewarding. We wanted these children in school, their parents said they did - so why didn't it happen?

Then my own son developed school phobia. It started with headaches and stomach pains every day. My first thought was that he was making them up, but they seemed genuine. We talked about school - was he being bullied; was the work too hard; did he have friends? Everything was fine, he said. He just felt ill.

With this came the nightmares and I'd hear him shouting in his sleep. He would appear at breakfast looking grey and exhausted. I would jolly him along and tell him to go to school, then go off to work assuming all would be well once he got there. However, I started getting phone calls to say he hadn't arrived. My colleagues were heroic, covering for me at short notice . But I still felt awful rushing out at 10am. Once home, I'd spend the day trying to get him to school - I'd drive him in and escort him into the reception area where he'd simply turn and flee. I'd drive home, pick him up and we'd start again. One day I did this six times.

By now, lots of people were getting involved. His head of year tried one strategy after another, the Educational Social Work (ESW) service was calling meetings and the GP referred us to the Adolescent Mental Health service. Everyone asked him, "Why won't you come to school?" Every time he answered: "I don't know."

The tension and sadness leached into every aspect of our family life and he barely left his room. He stopped washing and brushing his hair and fought all attempts to get him into clean clothes, insisting on wearing old tracksuit trousers and a huge dressing gown. We worried that his friends were drifting away.

On the advice of the child psychologist, we had a system of rewards and sanctions. No school meant no pocket money, DVDs, computer games or internet. He accepted this without question - one of the ironies was that we knew we could trust him not to breach these conditions. He'd lie on his bed all day reading or, if he felt particularly bad, staring at the ceiling.

By this time, I was on sick leave from work. We battled our way through every morning, sometimes getting as far as the front door before the fear overtook him and he raced upstairs to barricade himself in his room. We talked through his door or, when I could get in, with him sitting on his window sill threatening to jump.

I followed advice given by the child psychologist and told him that I didn't want him to harm himself but that he had to go to school. He sat weeping and shaking on the window sill until I retreated and he could rebuild his barriers. Only when school was off the agenda would he come downstairs and put his arms around me, sadly repeating, "I don't know why, I just don't."

The child psychologist said my son didn't have mental health issues, which was a huge relief - but that meant his absence had to be seen as truancy.

The ESW service agreed he wasn't misbehaving, but genuinely frightened.

However, the absence of medical evidence meant legal action. Tension rose still further at home as I wondered how on earth we could cope with court as well as a distraught 12-year-old weeping on the window sill.

This carried on through Year 7 and into Year 8. We continued to request meetings. I spoke to the head of the ESW service and the local authority education officer, who sent us back to the GP. He referred my son to the mental health team again, only to be told they wouldn't see him because they'd already assessed him as outside their remit.

The one bright spot was my son's eagerness to learn. Once we stopped mentioning school, he'd happily spend days reading and working through textbooks and worksheets. His school sent some work but I knew providing what amounted to distance learning just wasn't possible for a mainstream school in the long term.

Something had to change. We'd had all the help that was on offer but it hadn't worked. We all agreed there was nothing more that anyone could do. I desperately wanted my son back - my funny, clever, sardonic son who had been replaced by this self-loathing, miserable young man.

So we took school out of the equation to concentrate on learning. I'd been working in schools for the best part of a decade so the freedom allowed by home education seemed shocking at first. No set subjects. No national curriculum. The only thing we had to prove was that we were providing a full-time and appropriate education.

We are lucky that we've been able to take this route and that it has provided a solution for us. A child who is keen to learn and an adult who has the time to facilitate it are the only essentials and we are fortunate enough to have both.

We've had to make sacrifices to do it, but family life is back on an even keel now and I have my son back. That's the most important thing.

School phobia: What do you think? Visit www.tes.co.ukstaffroomhave your say

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