During lockdown, I often felt like the only parent in Britain dreading the day our children were allowed back inside their classrooms.
My 16-year-old daughter, Gabby*, is what educators and child mental health workers call a “school refuser”. In an unfair world where so many girls are denied an education, mine literally refuses to go to school. Lockdown was respite from the shame and guilt of all that.
When this started nearly three years ago, other people – mainly my father, Gabby’s older sister, my younger brother and several friends – were eager to share their oh-so-simple answer to a problem I couldn’t believe I had.
“You just have to make her go,” they’d say, as though I was somehow blind to this most obvious solution.
But only a parent in the same position as me will understand that no amount of threatening or cajoling will get a child like Gabby into the classroom on the days when all she will say is: “I can’t.”
One terrible morning I tried to physically drag her out of bed, my husband standing horrified in the doorway telling me this wasn’t the way. And yet the night before he’d been the one saying “this has to stop” with no more idea of how to achieve that than me. It has caused endless rows.
Over the years we’ve taken Gabby’s phone off her, bribed her with expensive trainers, taken her for counselling, let her try a different school. Nothing worked.
Now though, I’ve discovered that however alone I’ve felt with this problem, the truth is I’m not. Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawir, appeared on BBC Breakfast last week and was put on the spot about how many children are currently out of school because of Covid. He pointed out that pre-pandemic attendance always hovered at around 95 per cent. Persistent absenteeism is a long-term problem, he acknowledged, and something he wants to get to grips with. Apparently he’s asked his team to do a “deep dive” to find out what’s going on.
As the mother of a child who is one of the five per cent he’s talking about, I know the depths they’ll have to go.
I’ll bet the first thought many viewers had hearing that phrase “persistent absenteeism” was that these children come from so-called “feckless families”: products of parents who don’t care enough; low achievers who don’t appreciate what a great privilege an education is in the first place.
Once, I’d have thought the same myself. But within that statistic (there isn’t any data specific to school refusers) are youngsters like Gabby – a bright girl with professional, well-educated, middle class parents who couldn’t care more.
It was so different at primary school, where she loved learning so much she wanted to be a teacher so classrooms would always be a part of her life. But leaving a school community of 100 pupils for a high school with 1,200 kids changed everything. Her best friend went elsewhere and Gabby struggled to find someone else to connect with in that huge new pool of peers.
“There are so many children, but I feel really lonely,” she told me at the end of her first term.
As a loner, Gabby got picked on. She became distracted in class, worrying about where she could hide at lunchtime and breaks. She fell behind, getting moved down from the top sets to classes containing many of the children who were making her miserable.
At home, she became sad and withdrawn but refused to talk about it. Her older sister had experienced difficult periods during adolescence, as do most youngsters. I thought it would pass.
But by year nine, Gabby frequently vomited with anxiety on Sunday nights at the prospect of school the next day, sometimes saying she’d rather die than go in. Through the school week she was miserable, looking permanently tired and withdrawn. She’d pick up on a Friday, come back to life on a Saturday, then Sunday evening we were back on a downward trajectory.
Then, one morning, she simply refused to get out of bed. “I’m not going,” she said. I tried reasoning with her, telling her she had no choice, and she challenged me to make her. I told school she was sick, praying this was a one off. She went back the next day. But the one after, she refused again. It got worse from there.
Lockdown couldn’t have come at a better time. By then, even on the rare days I got Gabby into school I’d be on pins waiting for the call to say she’d locked herself in the toilet and could I take her home.
The school showed endless patience, and child mental health services provided counselling. We were well supported. Although, if we hadn’t been a middle class family with an older child who had thrived at the same school, I wonder whether we’d have been held more accountable.
The impact on my own life was profound. I run by own business, so while I wasn’t beholden to an employer it became increasing difficult to commit to clients.
I went to bed each evening not knowing what the morning would bring: would Gabby go into school; would she have a meltdown in the car journey over there and we’d have to turn back; if she did make it in how soon would I have to go back for her, and how time-consuming would the process of getting her out of school (she might be hiding somewhere in the building or locked in a loo) be; how much emotional support would she need at home if she was having a bad day?
That uncertainty about each day meant I was permanently on edge – unable to make my own plans or commit to anyone or anything.
Homeschooling during lockdown meant Gabby could get back to learning, something I began to wish we’d explored before Covid, although, both my husband and I work so I don’t know how we’d have managed. And though life was severely restricted during the pandemic, mine felt strangely freer because that day-to-day uncertainty had gone.
When the schools reopened last March, many kids struggled with the return and were offered reduced timetables – Gabby included. Knowing some of her peers were struggling, she felt less alone. She’s now in school part time working towards her GCSEs. At home Gabby studies and revises – she’s developed a strong sense of agency, which I now know is crucial to her feeling safe in school. She is likely to even pass her exams. And I have a framework around which I can plan my day.
Much of this progress comes down to maturity and finally being able to articulate her feelings and needs. Meanwhile, I’ve learnt to let go of my shame at her problem and so I listen better. Now, on the days she says she needs to be at home I tell her she knows best because at 16, where her own mental health is concerned, I genuinely think she does.
Parents sometimes wear the fact that their child is happy, doing well and sociable at school as a badge of honour – proof that they’re doing a good job. In the face of that it can feel impossible to admit you can’t even get your child into school.
But that’s exactly what I do say now when someone asks me about Gabby. On a recent dog walk that resulted in me crying with a stranger I got talking to – she’s going through the same thing with her teenage son and we shared each other’s pain at being part of the five per cent.
We parents of school refusers might feel alone, but really we’re not.
* Name has been changed