26 Nov How can governments help schools address school refusal
Researchers Nigel Howard and Andrew Bills report that schools are often not empowered by education authorities to respond in their own ways.
Earlier this month, the ABC reported an alarming national poll about school refusal. Of the 1,000 parents surveyed by the Greens-commissioned poll, 39% agreed or strongly agreed their child had experienced school refusal in the past year.
School refusal is already on the radar for policymakers. A Senate inquiry in August called for a national plan to tackle the numbers of students who are refusing to go to school.
Education ministers will meet in December to discuss a raft of potential school reforms, including plans to boost school engagement. The federal government is expected to respond to the Senate inquiry by the end of the year.
What can federal and state governments do to fix school refusal? Our research suggests they need to allow schools to help students in flexible ways.
School refusal in Australia
The recent Senate inquiry noted there is no commonly agreed definition of school refusal, but described the phenomenon as:
the inability of a young person to attend school due to a severe negative emotional reaction to school.
This can involve frequent absences, emotional distress, anxiety, hiding and refusing to leave the house or car to go to school.
According to national figures, 50% of Australian students are missing at least four weeks of school a year. But this does not tell us why.
There are no precise figures on school refusal. Figures range significantly from as low as 1-5% of all students (figures are higher for neurodiverse students and students with a disability) to the 39% in the Greens-commissioned poll.
This is because the data and measures used by different state and federal education systems to record school refusal are inadequate – they do not help us understand the complex dynamics of absenteeism and school refusal.
Broadly, schools report absences as “explained”, which can be things like sickness, medical or family reasons. Or they can be “unexplained”, which includes truancy or just that a family has not supplied a reason. There is no current way for the system to dive below those blunt assessments.
Our research looks at students who are disengaged with schooling and the pipeline that led to them disengaging.
This has involved observing and interviewing teachers and students across ten South Australian schools from all sectors.
We have found falling out of school is not a single event but a journey. This journey can involve periods of absence from school, suspension and exclusion and growing disengagement with learning.
We have also found a school’s response to a student who has stopped wanting to come to school for whatever reason can make the difference between student re-engaging or walking away altogether.
If a school is able to reach out to the young person and their family and make adjustments to support them, this can help students feel less isolated. The key thing is a school being willing to listen and being able to respond to the students’ individual needs and situation.
Watch out for transitions
We have also found transitions are key stress points, such as when children change schools or years. Schools must work to make those transitions welcoming and find ways of easing the disruption to the child’s life.
As one student explained to us:
[Primary school] was lovely community […] I grew up with everyone. I knew everyone’s parents, if I was sick, I knew that like [a friend’s] parents would come over to pick me up from school […] that community was amazing […] And it taught me so much and being removed from that messed me up.
Our interviews and research have consistently shown how a school community can help support students who experience school refusal. We found schools that are small and focused on relationships can reorganise the school program to respond to students’ needs and problems. As one primary school principal told us:
I was really worried about how anxious the kids were [so] we started to take the kids outside to do maths and there was a difference. They relaxed and started to engage. The outside made such a connection to kids.
Another principal told us how they changed the rigid structures of the school day and made the environment more welcoming. This meant arranging furniture and classrooms so they looked more like a home. This acted as a bridge, to make the transition between home and school easier for all but especially for students with “school trauma”. As the principal explained:
There was a lot of parents just wanting something different for their kid.
Parents have also spoken about how smaller, community-focussed schools can support them. One mother told us how her child’s school responded when her daughter did not want her mum to leave:
There was one day I just couldn’t cope. I was crying at the front desk ‘I can’t do this anymore’. [One teacher] came out and said ‘come on […] leave [your daughter] here she’s fine she’s safe’ […]. They took her to a friend’s [class] room, she did some craft then she went with someone else […] They gave me a break, they shared their stories about their children and I didn’t feel alone.
Schools often don’t have flexibility
But our research has told us that schools are often not empowered by education authorities to respond in their own ways.
Principals have told us they are not given the autonomy to make decisions at the local level and that compliance with policies and good NAPLAN scores take precedence over trying innovative solutions of making schools more family and community oriented.
Beyond narrow measures
To tackle the complex dynamics of school refusal and disengagement state and federal governments need to move away from narrow measures of academic “success” measured by standardised tests and high ATARs and allow schools space to belong to their community. School students are not standardised and the school needs to respond at a local level to the uniqueness of their community
We need to encourage and celebrate schools and principals who are reaching out to their communities. This is not easy and the work is ongoing but there is an understanding everyone – students, families, teachers and schools – is in it together.
Nigel Howard, Research associate, Flinders University and Andrew Bills, Researcher into Educational Leadership and Policy, Flinders University