I hated school,” admits TV psychologist Emma Kenny. “I felt like I didn’t belong.”
Things were so bad, she says, that she became a school refuser.
“I just didn’t want to be there,” she explains.
Kenny is perhaps the last person you would imagine to have a history of school refusal. Positive, approachable and highly successful both in and out of the media spotlight, it’s easy to imagine that she had a charmed life and a spotless school record.
But like many school refusers, a mix of factors meant that her years in school were incredibly tough.
“I struggled academically and was considered lazy by my teachers,” she reveals. “[But] when I was 15, I was diagnosed with severe dyslexia and dyscalculia – [unfortunately] by then the damage had been done. On top of this, I suffered from severe anxiety and had some pretty awful physical tics, so I wasn’t in a great place mentally.
“I had long absences, but was able to convince my school that it was down to severe asthma. I’d forge notes and would creep back to my parents’ house after they left for work so that I could answer the 11am call from school every Friday. When I was in school, I’d just go to the sick room and sleep.”
There is currently no accurate data available about the prevalence of school refusal, although it is estimated that it occurs in between 2 and 5 per cent of school-age children, usually at key transition periods such as at the start of primary or secondary school, but often in the mid-teens as well. It is a poorly understood condition with little funding to help both the children who suffer from it and the staff whose job it is to identify it and support these pupils.
Kenny knows the problems well, not only because she was a school refuser herself, but also because she spent 13 years working with high-level and high-risk disaffected children as a pupil welfare worker, a counselling supervisor, and then running the social psychology and mentoring for a pupil referral unit.
Her extensive work with school refusers and her personal school experience has led her to believe that these pupils are often written off as low achievers and troublemakers and are constantly being let down by a system that currently doesn’t fit their needs.
School refusers come from a variety of backgrounds. Kenny says many she worked with were non-readers who had spent their primary education excluded or at home with parents who hadn’t the resources to deal with their needs. Those children grew into attitude-ridden teenagers who few teachers had the patience to deal with.
But she adds that they can also come from a stable, supportive home background, too. As Kenny herself says: “I had a close family. They worked hard and I felt safe and loved by them, but I couldn’t help letting them down.”
So what causes school refusal and how can it be identified?
Children 'feeling isolated'
“It’s multifaceted and different for each individual,” says Kenny, “but there are some common themes to look for. It can be down to separation anxiety or can manifest from a deeper life issue such as divorce, bereavement or bullying. It’s usually seen in kids who feel isolated or as if they don’t fit in.
“These children start to see school as a hostile, unwelcoming place, and this can manifest in physical symptoms such as nausea, sickness, diarrhoea and panic attacks, all of which increase anxiety and lead to a vicious cycle of avoidance.”
So that child who constantly complains of nausea and likes to hide out in the sick room may not simply be trying to avoid work by missing lessons – they could be suffering from a severe anxiety disorder that is causing them to avoid whatever makes them anxious: in this case, the classroom.
But it’s not easy to work out when a child is genuinely in distress and when they’re trying it on, and this is where the first difficulty lies.
“Schools need doctors and psychologists to confirm that it is a genuine condition,” says Kenny. “Most schools will refer to child and adolescent mental health services [Camhs], but they have limited time and even more limited resources to deal with such complex issues.”
And that’s if the process even gets that far. “The reality is that schools don’t have time to deal with refusers,” she argues. “They already have too much on their plates, and kids who don’t attend school are not an immediate problem when they are dealing with other behavioural and academic concerns.”
It’s easy to see how these pupils can slip through the net. But, as Kenny says, even the ones who don’t are often not given access to a suitable learning environment.
“Alternative provision can be offered, but this doesn’t tend to be positive as kids who are school-phobic are often swamped by the big personalities and behaviour problems of kids who attend alternative provision,” she says. “What seems to work for some is when schools try to offer reduced timetables and safe spaces for those who struggle so that they can remain part of the school community, as opposed to feeling completely disconnected from education.”
Kenny had a positive experience of this during her school days, when a teacher who recognised that she was not merely a lazy troublemaker made her the head school librarian, giving her a sense of purpose, an office and a safe space to hide away in when she needed to.
“I will always be grateful to Mrs Skinner,” she says. “She was an amazing teacher and she saved my education. She gave me such an important message about self-care and belief. With that, she achieved far more than the two years I spent trailing back and forth to the local clinical psychology services, who didn’t know what to do with me.”
This is, in a sense, the only general rule when it comes to school refusers: so much is bespoke to the individual concerned but what they all need, says Kenny, are inspiring, approachable teachers who treat each child as an individual and are dedicated to making their lessons interesting and fun.
In terms of prevention, Kemy says there is much that can be done – if only schools had the cash to do it. “[So much of it] sadly, comes down to funding,” says Kenny. “We need to invest a great deal more in educational literacy and resilience so that children can deal more effectively with the complexities of growing up. But without funding for psychological school provision for pupils, this is next to impossible. Surely we need to reconsider our priorities.”
So what can schools do in the meantime, while we wait for that extra funding to appear? “The couple of strong teachers I had who tried to view the world through my eyes, and attempted to understand, made me want to attend their lessons at least semi-regularly,” Kenny says. “I spent most of my time at school bored, but when I was engaged, I wanted to be there, if only for that lesson … we need to think about how to remodel an outdated education system that fails to inspire so many kids. This would be a great step towards preventing school refusal.”
Lisa Jarmin is a primary teacher in the North West of England. She tweets @lisajarmin