If you read my blog regularly you’ll know that I’ve been struggling with my son’s anxiety and school refusing on and off for a long period of time. It has been a difficult road for all of us we as we’ve had to try and manage our son’s needs against his wants. It seems a strange thing to say ‘needs against his wants’ but it has become clear to us that what he wants doesn’t always match up with what he needs. My son has always maintained that he loves his school and wants to be there but I could never work out why he couldn’t keep up his attendance if things were as great as he made them out to be. I started to think that familiarity was more important to him than anything else which made things very difficult for us. On the one hand we had to respect our son’s views and if he wanted to return to this school then we had to make it happen for him. (I don’t want my son to turn round to me as an adult and accuse me of removing him from the school he loved.) On the other hand I felt a responsibility to try and improve his support to prevent the mini breakdowns he was having.
Unfortunately the school thought that his anxiety attacks and school absences were a mental health problem which had nothing to do with them. CAMHS argued that the school should be managing his anxiety better and I agreed with them. Medication only goes so far. At the end of the day you have to put in place additional supports to manage anxiety. Whilst we did all we could our end I didn’t feel enough was being done by school. In fact I started to suspect his statement wasn’t being properly met. I had often thought that many of his teachers had presumed competence in my son and as a result assumed that he did not require the input as stated in his statement of SEN. This is an attitude that I have come across time and time again; that because my son appears normal there is no need to support him emotionally, socially or even educationally. Indeed at one parents evening a teacher told us that my son had nothing like the difficulties other pupils had. That may be the case but we shouldn’t assume that because my son appears in control that he is underneath. As I explained to this gentleman, my son has learnt to mask his difficulties in a school environment but lets go at home. Unfortunately it seems that if people don’t see any challenging or unusual behaviours they don’t believe that it can occur just in the home and hence you get this situation where parents like me are either disbelieved or assumed to be over anxious.
We tried to bring these issues up at the annual review meetings but I’m afraid to say that these reviews were a rushed affair. No-one properly considered the reasons for my son’s school refusal or even listened to us. They maintained that unless my son was in school they couldn’t support him (ie blame the parent for not getting him in). We argued that something in school was triggering the school refusing and that this is what needed to be addressed. My view is that school refusing doesn’t happen without a reason and sometimes that reason can be a symptom of something going wrong in school. For my son I felt it was poor support during periods of change because he would often fall apart during the summer term.
Unfortunately the school didn’t accept this. They also argued that their provision was based on small groups with one teacher and one assistant. If my son required more support then my LA would have to pay for it (my LA pays for my son’s place). At this point our educational psychologist asked the school to provide evidence that could be put forward as evidence for a TA but alas the school didn’t respond. To make matters worse the school then dropped a bombshell and told me that the school could no longer meet need and due to pressure on places my son would have to move into pre 16 provision at a local college. I was not happy. My son at that point was in school part time; he was happy and wanted to do more hours. I felt it important that he be allowed to do this and to complete his final year at school just like everyone else. If he didn’t finish his compulsory education I felt he would react badly. Indeed when I spoke to him about the possibility of moving to college he replied that unless he finished his schooling he would never continue with his education. I told the school this but I was accused of misinterpreting the situation. I was beyond angry; I knew what I heard!
At this point tensions between us, the school and now our LA were at an all time low. The education officer who had been in attendance at my son’s last annual review sent in another council officer. This was the meeting that I recorded in my Friend or Foe post where a teacher came into my home and started throwing her weight around. (At that point I think she assumed we were the problem.) Fortunately I had given this officer a written synopsis of my son’s education history and thank goodness I did. In time she was to read it and as a result started to see that we weren’t the problem and that it was school that could have done things better. At last we had someone on our side and together we have been able to assert enough pressure on the school to agree to my son finishing his final year. I have also been able to get school to agree to my son doing functional exams as I felt it was important that my son leave with something rather than nothing (my son had missed too much time to sit his GCSE’s).
I am very happy with this outcome. I was on the verge of complaining to the Local Government Ombudsman about the way my son has been treated but now I am having a rethink. I am not convinced about the effectiveness of the LGO. As far as I know they can order local authorities to pay out compensation but besides that they have little power to restructure education. As it is I think I’ve done the best I can for my son; a chance to finish his schooling with his classmates and a chance to get some qualifications before starting college.
PS I use the phrase mini breakdowns to describe the anxiety-induced ‘crash’ that my son experiences from time to time. We haven’t received a clinical diagnosis for this but I have always felt that these episodes were more than just anxiety because my son’s day-to-day functioning has been significantly affected by these episodes.