“Some of the most brilliant, creative people I know did not do well at school. Many of them didn’t really discover what they could do – and who they really were – until they had left school and recovered from their education.”
Sir Ken Robinson

At Define Fine we offer online support for parents and carers of children and young people who struggle with school, especially attendance, including emotionally based school avoidance sometimes referred to as school refusal. There are so many contributing factors leading to these situations including having experienced bullying or even assaults, difficulties with mental or physical health, academic pressures, Special Educational Needs including ADHD, dyslexia, autism, and sensory processing difficulties. Sadly, most of these children and young people have not received the support they needed, nor the reasonable adjustments they are entitled to, to enable them to succeed at school. Some cannot explain why they find attendance difficult or not even possible, but the majority are clear that they want to attend, but they just can’t.

It is quite common for some of our parents to express their feelings of sadness, disappointment and even anger at times. Some feel particularly affected when they see their children’s peers, or their own friends and family sharing key moments of school life.

From those doorstep photos on the first and last day of school, prom events, end of year concerts and through to the announcements and celebrations of successful grades on exam results day. This doesn’t mean we begrudge anyone their happiness and achievements, but it is a stark reminder of how much our children miss out and this can lead to feelings of failure, for parents and family members as well as the child or young person themselves.

Have these parents and their children and young people failed?

It’s so easy to believe we have…

One of our members posted on GCSE results day:

“Today I cried with happiness as my brilliant, intelligent, talented son beamed when he found out that he had been awarded a level 4 in his maths GCSE. I think we had prepared ourselves for the fact that he may be leaving after so many difficult years of schooling with no GCSEs at all. My son wasn’t supported at his High School. They spent so much time disputing his needs and blaming our parenting, rather than making the simple reasonable adjustments he needed. They refused him the kind of support he had had all the way through primary school, the support that actually worked to allow him to succeed, to be confident, well and happy. Sadly, by the time his EHCP was appealed and issued, the provision was out of date. He had been left for most of his high school years with just a few hours of home tutoring a week.”

Why was she happy with one level 4 and not really disappointed? She went on to explain that she did experience sadness on his last official day of school realising how much of the school experience he has missed out on but felt relief on the actual results day. In this case the parent was happy because she felt her son had tried his best, and that he has plans for the future based on his talents and interests and is currently training to be an elite athlete. They have finally secured the right package of support through his EHCP to base around Education Other Than at School.

Her post got me thinking about our Not Fine in School children and young people. They are the ‘square pegs in the round holes’, the children whose needs are denied due to a lack of funding, or training, often not even reaching certain thresholds for SEND diagnoses and support. Sadly, by the time their needs are taken seriously, the opportunity for early intervention has passed and their needs have escalated. When families are going through this situation, it can feel like their children and young people won’t ever recover, and that they will fail – but the very fact that they have kept on going, and in some cases that they are still with us, is a cause for celebration. They have succeeded. It is the current education system that has failed.

Within Define Fine and our former support group, Not Fine in School, we do hear reassuring stories about children and young people who were not fine in school, but thrived in other environments so I decided to ask our members: ‘Does anyone have success stories to share of their children who have been not fine in school but successful in other ways?’

These are some of the replies:

Yes! Not fine in school, but smashed college and loved it!!

He didn’t pass all his GCSES in 2017, but he went on to prove himself at college and get an apprenticeship and doing quite well for himself now.

Absolutely thriving on a 14 – 16 college course which is based on his interests with a good level of support

Young person thriving in specialist provision. Apparently was fine in school and didn’t need an EHCP but though EHCP appeals was awarded a place at a specialist provision

18 months out of High school (yrs9/10) Took a construction course which took him to college one day a week. Glowing reports from college tutors, offered a place on the full-time plastering course before sitting GCSEs. Passed GCSEs, some only just but already had his college place. Represented college in Regional and nationwide competitions. After just over a year college felt he really needed an apprenticeship, secured one and stayed on to do an additional higher level

My son started suffering from severe anxiety linked to a medical condition and stopped going to school unable to attend school at all for 21/2 years and has been studying with a mixture of LA home tutors and Online courses -he’s now gained 6 GCSES and has been accepted into a level 3 Animal Management course

My daughter was a school refuser. She went on to college at 16. Barely missed a day for the two years she was there. Found a part time job and within 18 months had been promoted to supervisor. School isn’t everything. Don’t be too upset if school doesn’t work for your child. Exams aren’t everything.

My son with complex needs, has been out of school since year 5. It’s been a hellish journey, and yes at times and I felt like giving up. He starts University next month albeit 2 yrs. behind his peers. I am the proudest mum on the planet keep the faith and Never Ever give up

My daughter suffered horrendous anxiety and school refusal over the last year. I got the impression that school just didn’t believe us. When school closed in March my daughter became a different person. Laughter and jokes (getting her out of bed was a challenge beforehand). Anyway, she’s got good enough results to do the college course she wanted so we are happy.

I deregistered my son last year before his 16th birthday. After a year off and an ASD diagnosis he’s currently beside me applying for college

My daughter has had over 5 yrs. with hardly any school due to ill health -one lesson a week, the odd private tutor here and there otherwise used YouTube and amazon to find resources all funded by us. Proud mum today 7 GCSES all grades 7 – 9.

My daughter went to college. Absolutely fine. Barely missed a day. Got a part time xmas job. Was made permanent and was then given the supervisor position. Common sense and a good work ethic go a long way.

My son (27) left school with no GCSEs due to spending a lot of time in and out of hospital with serious health issues and he went on to college, got his GCSEs and is working as a TA in a school

I’m so happy I could burst. My son who has struggled for 4yrs and been house bound/nocturnal with 0 education for almost 2yrs has today signed himself up to a barbering course and has done so all by himself. I’m so super proud of him.

Mine was a school refuser end of yr10, after losing her friendship group – 3 different schools in yr11. Could only manage part time for last 6 months of school, had to drop strongest subjects for GCSEs. From September has commuted to college 40 miles away to a performing arts course. Has taken level 6 trinity speech and drama exam (outside of college) and gained her first UCAS points. Got one of the main parts in her college show, was asked by one of her tutors to sing at a charity fund raiser. Successfully auditioned and became a member of national youth theatre on her first attempt.

My daughter never completed a full academic year since year 7. She is now 18 managed to get English and Maths level 2 functional skills and has just started an apprenticeship in assistant pharmacy. We are 3 weeks in, and she loves it. so proud x

After 3-4v tough years – just got 6 v good GCSEs. Fell out of mainstream, then special school which worked for 1.5 terms, then out again, then back in with tons of support…

Most important bit was some work experience that gave huge confidence, helped by exam access conditions for mocks that really helped. Our kids just need people to support them x

Yes! Too long a story but in a nutshell – 11 years out of mainstream (complex needs) and battled for continued and adequate SEND provision. This time last year we were in complete despair – my son was NEET – but we finally got amazing support – he starts University next month.

My son was off rolled from sixth form due to ill health and attendance and too unwell to transfer to another school or college, so despite being academically capable has no A levels. He’s been at home learning from various online short courses, finding out what his interests were. He’s now enrolled at the Open University aged 20 to study Psychology.

Our son struggled at mainstream and specialist provision. Eventually EOTAS was arranged and he focussed on developing his music talents – He now has a degree which he studied for locally, and works in music tech industry

Our son didn’t cope with the transition to High School. We removed him from school, and he studied with an online school. He was able to go to college and on to university where he achieved a first class honours this year.

My sister didn’t do high school well & left with nothing. After a few years she went back to college & university, ended up with a MSc degree in psychology & works as a Psychologist at a Hospital. Nothings impossible, you just need the right environment at the right time.

I was a NFIS kid, was part time for 18 months, scraped through some GCSEs, tried to stay in 6th form but couldn’t cope, so left after a few weeks, ended up working in a respite care home for disabled children and things headed upwards from there. A year on went to college, ended up doing well with A levels and went on to uni! Out of the school environment I was like a different person, and my confidence slowly it steadily took off.

It’s reassuring to me being a NFIS kid myself and then having it from a parent perspective that my daughter will find her way in life in the longer term 😊

And finally, one parent wrote:

School isn’t for everyone, once they find somewhere they are happy, they thrive.

So, if this is the case why do so many of our young people have to struggle for so long, with such devastating effects, not only for them, but quite often their whole family. For some children the adjustments they need are free or relatively inexpensive – pastoral care, acceptance of their difficulties and diagnoses, more flexible timetables, nurturing their interests, focussing on their strengths, others may need more time or more suitable educational provision and environments.

From the variety of stories shared by our parents, about their struggles and successes, it is important to ensure that families, and our children and young people themselves understand that:

  • learning and education are life long, and go on beyond school,
  • their GCSE and A level results don’t define them,
  • some people just take longer to achieve exam results,
  • school is only one of many ways to receive an education, and that other educational approaches and settings may suit them better.
  • they may be able to choose environments for study and work in that meet their needs, unlike the unnatural mainstream school environment.
  • some jobs and roles in life don’t depend on qualifications, but on skills, and some will be flexible enough to allow for their differences.
  • work experience and supported internships and volunteering are a way of getting ready for life after school.
  • they also have talents and interests outside of the current narrow school curriculum they can develop
  • some of the most successful people in history had difficult journeys, against the odds, and it’s worth looking to them for inspiration
  • and most of all that there is a place for them in our families, our communities and in this world. We need them.