To those of you who know of someone whose children are not in school, please do not assume that they are truanting delinquents. Regardless of what the papers say not all these children are truants or the result of poor parenting. Some children may be struggling so much with their life at school that they simply stop going.
School refusal is a term used to describe pupils who refuse to attend school due to reasons such as anxiety or stress. It is not truancy or the occasional day when your child doesn’t want to go to school but a persistent avoidance of school. It was used to describe my son when he was first out of education in 2009 and again in 2011 when he was unable cope with school due to severe anxiety. Since then, I have managed to expose him to his school (a special school) and even got him into classes for one week but this was too much and he has not been in since last November. We now have a home tutor for him provided by the local authority and this is starting to lift his confidence and engage him in learning but it is a slow process. Nevertheless, I think the home tuition service are starting to realise the extent of my son’s difficulties. Maybe sometime soon, they will see what I can see and we can confront the question that is haunting me: is his school still right for him?
As for my daughter who has aspergers syndrome it seems she may also be going down the school refusing route. After finding school difficult for quite a while she has now reached a point where she says she “gives up”. These are not words you want to hear from your child, particularly when you’ve tried so hard to get help for her, as we have done. In hindsight, I wonder whether we should have moved her to another school but this is not an easy thing to do with an autistic child; they do not cope well with change so any change has to be carefully managed. Furthermore where would we have moved her to? Without a statement of special educational needs, we are restricted to the mainstream schools and in my area few (if any) of these schools can properly support pupils with aspergers syndrome, particularly those without statements. This is why we have applied for a statement in the hope that we can get the additional support she needs.
In the meantime we are in limbo, caring for two school refusing children whilst battling the authorities for support. It is a stressful situation to be in. Not only do you worry about what your children are going through and the impact that missed education will have on their future lives but you also feel torn between pressurising your child back to school and being sensitive to their needs. It is a difficult path to negotiate. Whilst we recognise that for my daughter her current school is not right for her, we’re aware that the longer she is out of school the harder it will become for her to return (similarly for my son). We are therefore trying to organise support for my daughter whilst gently encouraging her back. It is difficult and things are not going well. We managed to encourage her back into school last week but promises from the school that she would have “support in class” amounted to an assistant who was, we later discovered, instructed to observe my daughter instead of providing actual support. Not surprisingly, my daughter came home upset that she was ignored and now refuses to go back into school. The whole situation is a mess and we are left feeling betrayed by a school who are clearly not sympathetic to our situation and more worryingly are not being totally honest with us.
On top of this there is also the difficulty of trying to deal with friends and acquaintences who don’t understand school refusal. When I dare to mention (and it’s not often) that my son and daughter are not in school, I can see them giving me quizzical looks and fumbling over what to say. You can almost hear them think “bad parents” because that is how many people have been structured to think. I mean our government and media are on such a crusade to blame parents for everything, it’s not surprising that some people assume it’s the parents’ fault when they hear of children who aren’t in school.
If this isn’t difficult enough, there are also the practical arrangements of looking after a school refusing child. If you are working how do you combine this sudden demand for full-time care with bringing in an income? As I’ve found, it’s difficult. Childcare for children with special needs is hard to find and even if you can find it, is it affordable? My little bit of work is hardly going to cover childcare fees but luckily for me my husband works at home one day a week which enables me to do a few hours of work. However, that is all I can do. I can’t take on any more hours of work and I’ve had to decline the offer of extra work because of the need for me to be at home. Though there is never any question of putting my children’s needs before mine, to turn down work in these difficult times is a depressing experience.
Still, I try and remain positive and hold onto the thought that we can manage on my husband’s income though our division in labour does cause resentment from time to time (my fault, I’m afraid). As the main carer of my children I sometimes feel jealous of my husband’s freedom to leave the house for his job. Sometimes I imagine how great it would be to escape the confines of home and be paid for a job that had more respect and status than mother and carer. I am careful not to dwell on this however as I know my husband has his own moments of despair and exhaustion. Working long hours, being responsible for other people and then returning home to us can’t be easy either. It is a situation where we just have to accept our differing roles and hope that one day things will become easier.
To anyone else going through similar experiences the only advice I can give is to take each day at a time and don’t be afraid to seek support even if it is just finding someone to talk to. To those of you who know of someone whose children are not in school, please do not assume that these children are truanting delinquents. Regardless of what the papers say not all these children are truants or the result of poor parenting; some children may be struggling so much with their life at school that they simply stop going. So please spare a moment to consider what that child and their family is going through and what you can do to help them. Taking a few moments to call them or to visit them can seem so inadequate but simple gestures like this can lift the painful isolation that families like mine are experiencing. Believe you me, a chat over a cup of tea and a piece of cake is the sort of thing that really lifts my spirits at the moment.