School Refuser - The Blog

Friday, 22 April 2016

Another duvet day

Some time ago, I was asked to write an article for a head teachers association publication.  The final published version has disappeared, but I recently received back my draft.

Another duvet day

  
The house had been like a pressure cooker about to explode.  Tempers were frayed.  There had been swearing, shouting and banging of doors.  Perhaps not all that unusual in a house full of teenagers, but we had experienced nothing like it. I took the dog for a walk.

Returning home, I saw a strange car parked outside my home.  As I neared, my daughter came out of the house and climbed into the back of the car.  I reached the vehicle before it was driven off and realised that she was sitting beside her friend, and that the friend’s mother was the driver.  After a brief discussion, I allowed my daughter to be taken away. There had been no discussion – she was just leaving.

At about this time, my daughter had been encouraged to keep a diary.  She chose to do this in pictorial form.  When I saw it, I was appalled.  Appalled and frightened.  The pages were black. Words such as ‘I hate myself’ and ‘There’s no point in living’ leapt out at me.  I needed help.  We all needed help. And we were not getting it.  I took the book to a senior social worker. It was clear she did not understand the problems we were facing.  ‘She has got you round her finger’, she said.  But others, including our doctor, did understand.

One day, I noticed the office cleaner arriving late for work.  She looked tearful.  Asking her what the problem was, she confided that her son was failing to stay in school.  She had discovered that he would run out of the back door after she dropped him off at the school gates, and make his way home.  At last I had found someone else in the same situation.  For our daughter was a ‘school refuser’.

Whether I did the office cleaner any good by listening to her problem, I don’t know.  But for me it was a relief to have someone to talk to.  Her son had been summoned before the Children’s Panel, and her claim that the appointed Social Worker never gave any support was fully believed when she failed to attend the hearing – twice!

Our daughter had a very difficult school trip, aged 13, and this seemed to be the tipping point when she stopped attending school regularly – and then refused to attend at all.

Various coping mechanisms were attempted or explored – threats of penalties, rewards, advice on outcomes, etc.  Deadlines came and went, punishments implemented.  Nothing seemed to improve the situation.

Meetings were held with the school.  Special provisions were offered and put in place: first in line for meals; come in late; leave early; private room for study; and more.

It was after one of these meetings that I met one of the deputy head teachers outside the school (He was on smoking patrol).  He confided that his brother had been a school refuser.  Later, I was to meet a chief executive of a children’s charity, and discovered that her niece had a similar problem.  ‘School Phobia’, or ‘School Refusal’ seemed to be a bigger problem than I had imagined, but little was being done about it.  Where were we to get help?

It became clear that our child’s needs were not being met by the local secondary school’s support systems.  Whilst they did care and did try, this was just too big for them.  We tried the local health service.  Our doctors are excellent.  The nursing staff is first class – but all seemed unable to help.

We were referred to CAHMS (Children and Adolescent Mental Health Service) where, aged 13, her problems were dismissed after 6 weeks of counselling , as ‘not bad enough to merit further treatment,’ and at a second referral 3 years later as ‘not able (because of her attitude) to engage in a psychological approach’. We were told by a psychiatrist (seen privately when she was aged 14) that she had a chronic anxiety problem. We attempted alternative therapy treatment to correct an apparent minerals and vitamins imbalance.  A local nurse worked with her to build her self esteem.  Her tutors understood her issues and worked around them.  A Social Worker was appointed by the Reporter to the Children’s Panel to do an assessment, but English was not his first language, and we just could not understand what he was asking us. And there were more.

Whilst almost all of the support agencies did try to find a solution, nothing seemed to make a difference.  We felt pushed and pulled by conflicting demands, not helped, it must be said, by our daughter, who would often be uncommunicative, or even walk out of, these consultations.  She found it frustrating with the continued promises of help to bring an end to her problems never seemed to work for her and left her feeling very negative about accepting help – or seeing another professional.

What more could they have done?  I tried to persuade the people involved with out daughter to talk to each other, to share notes, to discuss options.  This just did not seem possible.  When our son had a severe accident, there was a case management meeting where those involved shared strategies and agreed procedures.  Why was this not possible for our daughter?

One day, again returning from after a dog walking session, I met a neighbour, and found myself unburdening onto her.  I realise then that I needed some form of networking opportunity to be able to share the bad, and the good, moments; to discuss potential resources.  I had already tried ParentLine, but gave up after failing to get through – though I met one of their managers socially, who was very supportive.  One on-line support network moderates contributions and only accepts positive comments.  Another devoted a page to ‘School Refusers’ – but was totally blank apart from a message: ‘Content to follow’.  It never did, and the page was later removed.

Throughout all of this, we had worked on the theory that if our daughter was to get back into school, she would only be able to do so if she maintained relationships with her friends.  And they did try.  Our biggest concern was an on-line boy friend, but I believe the reality was that this was someone she felt totally safe with, because they were never going to meet face-to-face. There was, however, a time when this seemed a possibility.

However, as the friends dwindled, links with the local school became more tenuous.  Tutoring was offered, but not fully funded.  Private tutors were found, but sessions were often not attended.  A place in a special school was arranged, but this brought its own difficulties.  A private room for exams was provided at the local school, and a few exams were taken.  However, at 16 she was signed off as a school leaver.  She attempted college, but this did not work out for her.  A different solution was required.

We were aware of an independent girls’ school a little over an hour away.  We had tried schools nearer our home, day and boarding, but they seemed unwilling to provide the support required.

We attended a couple of meetings at the school to discuss options.  We were impressed by the flexibility that the school were prepared to offer and learned of other girls who had similar difficulties.

After almost a year out of school, we were pleased when our daughter made a quick decision that she wanted to try this school.  Initially, it was just day to day – and by no means every day. Later, she managed on overnight stay, and slowly we built up to full boarding.  But even then, some days were taken as ‘duvet days’.  Regular communication with school staff, encouraging texts and emails on days she stayed at home, helped maintain the links.

I am in no doubt that this school’s adaptable and very supportive approach will be the turning point on which our daughter’s future hinges.  University is still some way off, as is independent living, perhaps.  But we are making steady progress.

Many of us in this situation feel frustrated by the lack of progress.  We are not good at sharing our anxieties about our children.  We are prepared to extol their virtues – but not publicise their failings.  As a result, it is difficult to identify options that may help us, as parents, cope with the stress of living with a school refuser, take care of the remainder of the family and hold down a job.  Meanwhile, of course, we are also seeking solutions for our child.

And so, I decided that, as there appeared to be no support for parents of school refusers, I would set something up. 

SchoolRefuser.org.uk was born.  Traffic to the website is slow, but steady.  It dips during the school holidays, but rises steeply at the first week of term.

The site is probably in need of re-building.  It is not working as well as I hoped it would.  From my own needs, I wanted an area where parents of children who refused to attend school could share their concerns.  I wanted an area where we could receive support from others. And I wanted an area where resources would be available.

Schoolrefuser.org.uk does not provide solutions. That is, of course, what we all want.  We are also not good at admitting failure, and that is how many of us feel.

The site does provide a forum for people in similar situations to ‘meet’ and then hold off-line private discussions.  I know that these do happen. 

SchoolRefuser.org.uk would also benefit from a moderator who is not himself the parent of a ‘school refuser’, but is understanding of the issues for parents - and for children.

Most importantly, SchoolRefuser.org.uk lets parents know that they are not alone.  The site demonstrates that our child is not the only one in this situation and it helps us see that support is available.

 Footnote:
As I wrote this several years ago, things have changed with the website, and we do now have an excellent moderator.  Thank you  Linda.  We all owe you so very much.







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