My 16-year-old son refused to go to school – it took months to get him back

‘I don’t feel well,’ my son groaned from his bed. ‘I’ve got a stomach ache.’ 

I looked at him in dismay. Not again…

‘Come on, get up, you have to go to school,’ I told him, trying to hide my anxiety and sound firm. ‘Your exams are coming up.’

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an overbearing mum who will force her children into school when they’re sick. Not at all. But this was far from the first time my son had told me he was ill in an effort to call in sick and stay at home.

This school year, after years of good attendance, he became what is termed as a ‘school-refuser’ and there was nothing me or my husband could do to persuade him to go to his lessons.

It has opened my eyes to this problem that causes so many parents sleepless nights and anxiety – and the fact that we all need to provide a supportive environment for it to be overcome.  

My son has never cared too much for school. Even as a toddler, he would have preferred to have stayed at home than attend nursery. But he soon got into the routine and realised it was something children have to do. Plus, he has always been a sociable, happy boy with a set of good friends.

More recently, persuading two teenage boys, who aren’t exactly brimming with enthusiasm for lessons, to get out of bed and get themselves ready in a timely manner, has been challenging but not insurmountable.  

Then, in September last year my eldest son started coming up with reasons not to go. From stomach pains to headaches, justifications for missing school became worryingly common.

At first, I gave him the benefit of the doubt, believed that his illnesses were genuine and that he had legitimate reason to be off.

But as the ailments became a weekly occurrence, and a trip to the doctors ruled out any obvious health issues, it soon became clear that school avoidance was the true agenda.

‘You know how important good attendance is,’ I’d explain with increasing anxiety. ‘Especially now you’re in Year 11 with your exams approaching.’  

The whole experience was emotionally draining

But such rationalisations had little impact in convincing my son that it wasn’t optional and had to be attended every day. A pattern of a day or so of missed lessons a week became routine.

It was clear that he was genuinely distressed, or why else would he go to such lengths to avoid it? I felt stuck between providing sympathy and trying to believe him, to getting angry thinking he was throwing his chances of passing his GCSEs away.    

Without knowing what the best approach to tackling the school refusal was, my reaction was inconsistent. One day, I’d stand firm and tell him he had to go to in, the next I’d relent and let him stay at home.

And, with his wellbeing my main priority, the relenting days became more common than the holding ground days.  

Adding to my anxiety about the situation was the impact it might have on my younger son. I was worried he might consider it normal behaviour. Fortunately, that hasn’t been the case.

The only saving grace so to speak, was that I work from home as a freelance journalist, so I was able to supervise my son’s days off. That said, as a lot of parents discovered during the pandemic, home-schooling and working from home is a frantic juggle. Without being a qualified teacher, and having tight deadlines of my own, I knew that school was the best place for him to learn.

The whole experience was emotionally draining.  

The reasons for school refusal are highly complex. It is often considered a symptom associated with social anxiety disorder. But in my son’s case, I think it is more that he believes he has grown out of secondary education and has become disengaged in lessons. He often says he resents being treated like a child. 

Children deliberately miss school for a whole host of reasons and punishing parents is not the solution for better attendance

In fact, I believe that in my son’s case, his September birthday and maturity over many of his peers, has been a disadvantage. As well as being the oldest in the year, he had friends in the year above and I noticed that his attitude started to change last June when his older friends left. 

After discussing the best plan to try and tackle the situation, my husband and I decided to contact the school. During a meeting with his head of his year, several strategies were agreed upon, designed to help improve his frame of mind, such as sitting out of the lessons he was particularly disengaged with and speaking to the welfare officer.  

Yet just several weeks later, we received a letter from the school referring to his unsatisfactory attendance rate. The letter threatened us with a fine and even imprisonment if our son’s attendance did not improve. It felt like a punch in the stomach.

Informing my son of the threats had no positive impact. In fact, it seemed to make it worse, by seemingly offering some sort of validation as to why he didn’t want to go in. 

It was around this time that the school had been inspected by Ofsted. One area it had fallen down on was attendance. I felt that the letter was a knee jerk reaction to the Ofsted report, which made a mockery of the efforts I had made and the promises of support by the school.

Interestingly – and thankfully – the content of the letter has never been raised in subsequent communication I have had about my son with the school.   

While there is still a morning battle and some missed early periods, the situation has recently improved, and my son has been attending more regularly since after the Christmas break. This has obviously been a huge relief and I feel less stressed out and worried. 

I think the school’s efforts to try and improve his morale by letting him sit out of the lessons he felt particularly disengaged with and speaking to the welfare officer, along with my son realising that the end is in sight, have helped him enormously.  

I was appalled, therefore, by Michael Gove’s recent comments that parents should have their benefits cut if their children regularly miss school, thereby suggesting truancy is only really a problem among families on lower incomes.  

Children deliberately miss school for a whole host of reasons and punishing parents is not the solution for better attendance.  

Families need greater support to address absenteeism. Striving to create positive cultures, where children are engaged in lessons and feel valued, is vital. Professional welfare support, whether it’s through the school or local authority, needs to be readily available to address the underlying causes of poor attendance and to come up with workable, viable solutions. 

Policies need to be rethought at a government level, so schools don’t have Ofsted breathing down their necks to improve attendance. 

Only when this reactionary climate of blame and punishment is replaced with a more supportive and positive one, can persistence absence be effectively tackled.

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