Most parents will have witnessed school refusal. They’ll have seen a child being carried, kicking and screaming into school and looked away, unsure how best to respond. So they ignore it. They won’t know what to say to the parent so they won’t mention it.

We have been the school refusal parents. But our child wasn’t kicking and screaming. It turns out that school refusal can take many forms. Our child was in fact considered ‘fine’ in school. So what even is fine? He was ok for them but would let it all build up and explode at home. He didn’t scream at the gates. So, fine, right?

The first area we lived in our child  went happily to school. He didn’t talk much about his day, except to tell you word for word what questions had come up on a test and all his answers, and any he now knew he’d got wrong, and why. We knew he needed an assessment but the area we lived in would not be supportive. We’d seen how other parents were treated. So we did the only rational thing and moved. There were other factors, of course, but it was the right thing to do.

When in our new area our son told us, in great detail, how much he’d hated the last school. The children were horrible, he couldn’t go to the toilet when he wanted, it was busy. The list went on. He had never told us. He had been in a terrible mood every night but we never got to the root of the problem until he was out of that environment.
We made an agreement that he wouldn’t do that again, he would tell us everything as it happened. And he did. Every single detail of his day. At great length. It was better for him but a lot for us to process.

We received an ASD diagnosis at the next school. They said there would be support. They kept saying it, but it never materialised. We were just asked to sign bits of paper, declaring action that never happened. We didn’t know what to do. We just toed the line. He went in. He was academically fine but socially not so much. We spoke with them, asked for social courses so he could learn to pick up on social cues as it didn’t come naturally. They said that would not be necessary. We suggested applying for an EHCP. They said that they had enough funding for him and that would not be necessary. They still did not spend it on him.

We knew he needed help but all they cared about was the academics. Because they are judged on that. No Ofsted report ever says how mentally happy all the children appear to be or how their social needs are being nurtured and supported. Doesn’t happen. Isn’t deemed important.

He completed all the work and ask for more. They made him help the other children. He was not being allowed to progress at his own pace and he was being picked on by the other children for knowing all the answers. Then one day he said no. There was no build up. He would not be going in that day. We took in his sister, explained to the office, asked for a mental health day. These do not appear to be a thing so it was an unauthorised absence. He said he just needed a couple of days. A break. He couldn’t take it anymore. The constant tests, the bullying. He had reached breaking point, quietly and with minimal fuss.

The school turned up at our house on day 2, convinced him to come back, promised support. And he believed them. He gave them a chance. He went back with the promise that things would be different. They would help. They did not. Nothing changed. We had meetings and talked about making change. There was those pretty words again. All the things they were going to do. As usual nothing materialised. Over the next school holiday he had a headache while trampolining. We asked if he’d hit his head. He asked if it could be from when he was punched in the head at school. We asked where and he pointed to his temple. He said it was really hard and when there was no reaction from him he was punched again. We spoke with a first aider and agreed if it got worse we would go to the hospital in case it was a slow bleed. This happened after he was told by the school they would help him and keep an eye on things. With the same child he had had problems with. It was the last straw. We spoke to the doctor, asked to be signed off. They said they could no longer do this. They sympathised.

Home schooling looked like the best option in order to avoid pointless school visits with hollow promises and fines. So that’s what we did. The school tried to stop us. They offered a flexible time table, said he needed to do SAT’s or it would impact on him negatively. It was all too little, too late. He no longer trusted them. We no longer trusted them. The decision was made. It was not fair but it was the best we could do with what was on offer.

Our daughter wanted to stay. They had suggested an assessment for her also. She had emotional outbursts and was struggling academically. Dyslexia and dyscalculia were also possibilities. After an honest chat with her teacher it became clear that, although she was struggling academically, she was not struggling enough to get extra help. There were to many children ‘like her’. But we kept her there and kept an eye on things. She occasionally came home with an injury that she would say was from another child. Unfortunately she often made things up. Not deliberately, just one of her ‘traits’. She seemed to believe all she said. Because of this she was never believed so injuries were ignored. I saw a teacher say a child had definitely not said something to her when she wasn’t even standing near her. Neither was I. She may not have said it. The point was that they immediately dismissed what my child said, with no evidence, because she made stuff up.

She had friends and wanted to stay. During lockdown we discovered that she hadn’t actually been learning at all. Having been struggling to keep up she’d clearly found the solution and was just copying the other children. She screamed when we tried to do the work they sent home with her. Said she couldn’t do it without her partner. They were partnered up at school and she must have been copying all the answers. She didn’t know any of her times tables and they were moving her on to fractions with everyone else. So she was crying. Who wouldn’t?

We decided to take a step back. We signed her up to an online maths programme so she could learn the times tables as this would help with fractions. We bought a book to help her visualise them as this fitted her learning style. But she felt stupid. She cried. She hurt herself. We stopped submitting the work being sent home and nobody noticed. They didn’t ask how we were. They didn’t ask where her work was. It became clear the school system had broken her. She had been constantly compared to others and it had left her feeling incompetent, sad and useless. She called herself stupid all the time. It was heart-breaking.

We had a family meeting. We discussed what to do going forward. We wrote a pros and cons list for school and home school and home school won. Our son did not want to go to secondary. Our daughter did not want to go back to primary. So here we are now with two children, failed by an archaic system, trying to undo the damage that was done. It’s hard. They deserved better but were let down every step of the way.

They are happier now. Our son has developed a love of cooking (a weaker subject at school as he was ‘to slow’ when they worked in a group). He still loves maths and science and has a thirst for knowledge. He has met lovely children who don’t just him or expect him to fit in. He can be individual without being made to feel weird. Our daughter still feels stupid. It can take 3 hours to get her to do maths. But at least she doesn’t have to do it at the designated time or miss out. She also loves science. She is really good at art and enjoys anything creative. Both have expressed an interest in space.

They have the freedom to learn about things they are interested in and develop their strengths. They can work on their weaknesses without being compared or left feeling stupid. We are lucky we can do this for them but some parents are not so lucky. They need the school environment, so they drag their children in or deal with their child falling apart at the end of the day. They beg for help. They are ignored or, worse still, blamed. This is our experience from the point of view of SEN children. We are not alone. So many parents and children are struggling. Not just SEN children.

Something needs to change. It has been great to find groups that offer support for struggling families. It is both comforting and upsetting to see we are not alone.

By two Define Fine Parents