School avoidance : Unlocking brighter futures


Samantha Lea discusses how the right balance of academic and vocational opportunities in a nurturing supportive environment can provide even the most long-term school refusers the opportunity to flourish and achieve. 

Why children become serial school refusers – understanding the situation

In order to find the solution, we must first understand the problem – once we have recognised the reasons behind a child’s refusal to attend school, we can begin to address them.

In the majority of cases when a child refuses to go to school it is because something has happened which they cannot manage, leading to them losing control of the situation. Their self-esteem and confidence spirals downwards and rather than face what they see as an impossible position, they side-step it and choose not to attend. As time goes on, it then becomes harder and harder to ask for help.

The experience of family members at school can also affect the way attendance is viewed. If the parents had a poor experience and the family has low expectations towards success in school, the child is typically not encouraged to attend – it becomes a vicious circle as the parents’ expectations are instilled in the child from an early age. 

The reason for school refusal can also be very simple – falling out with a friend, or not being able to do the tasks set.

Things to look out for at home:

  • Fabricating illness and refusing to get out of bed
  • Getting ready for school, but then refusing to leave the house, get in the car or taxi or running away when it arrives 
  • Self-harming in order to be hospitalised and avoid school
  • Not returning home at night so that when the child is eventually found by police they are too tired to attend 
  • Threatening behaviour and spitting used to intimidate parents or carers who, in order to defuse the situation, allow the child to stay at home.

Things to look out for at school:

  • Avoiding getting down to work
  • Refusing to work in the classroom
  • Seeking out staff for a chat as a way to use up the time.

When a child displays extremely high levels of anxiety towards school, a referral to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) is recommended, as is Cognitive Therapy. 

The importance of the school-home partnership:

In order to get these children back into education the school must work in partnership with the parents or carers to form a resolution; with both parties working together, sharing expectations and acting in unison. 

Parents in this situation may initially feel they have failed, so support is important in building the partnership. The school needs to recognise where the parents are coming from – they may have low expectations due to their own experiences in school, or blame the lack of attendance on a child’s Education Health and Care Plan – after all the child has been recognised as facing extra challenges or school is a struggle due to their academic or emotional difficulties. They may be intimidated by the child’s threatening behaviour, or they may have tried everything and simply don’t know which way to turn and are looking for that support. 

Communication between home and school is key, with regular meetings at school and/or at home to monitor progress, discuss successes and challenges, and display a united front -‘we are all working together to help you’ – to the child.

Local authorities also step in when a child becomes a serial school refuser – something that can lead to parents feeling out of their depth. The school can support them or speak on their behalf. If the parent has tried different ways to get their child back into school, the child’s continued refusal is not their fault. The threat of an Attendance Order and fine rarely serves as an incentive to solve the child’s underlying problems.

If both the school and the parents or carers are seeking to understand how the child views school – what it looks like to them, and how they would like school to be – there are more opportunities for the child to share their fears and feelings. Teachers, parents and carers must always remain calm. A child refusing to attend school may seek out a negative reaction – it is difficult to talk about the reasons why – patience and calm will provide a safe space for sharing. 

Returning to school is incredibly daunting and challenging for serial school refusers, it’s breaking a habit and forming new ones, so schools need to accommodate them. Start with an individualised timetable, just a few hours a week, and gradually increase learning times and expectations. Allocate a member of staff to support the child – that person who regularly liaises with the child and parents, monitors developments and offers support when necessary.

Above all the child needs to know that everyone believes in them and there is a support network there for them. Never give up on a child – the worst thing you can ever do is exclude them.

Case study:

When Ryan Davis* first arrived at Crookhey Hall School, at the age of 14 – having not set foot inside a school for almost two years – he was ‘terrified’. As a teenager in care who had experienced a disruptive home life, Ryan had developed social, emotional and mental health difficulties that made a mainstream school environment too overwhelming, eventually leading him to become a ‘school refuser’. Fast forward two years, and Ryan’s attitude to learning has been transformed. Thanks to tailored support, he has achieved qualifications in seven subjects and has successfully transitioned to college.

Ryan responded extremely well to the bespoke support plan that was put in place along with firm boundaries, a high level of emotional and therapeutic support from staff and close liaison between home and school to encourage attendance. Starting with one lesson on the first day, progressing to two lessons the next and gradually building up the time spent in school helped Ryan to realise that learning could be a positive experience, and he made the decision to attend school full time.

Ryan went from being a young person who would stand in the car park refusing to set foot inside the school building to moving around the building chatting to staff and peers. We are extremely proud that he overcame his school anxiety with the support and guidance from staff, enabling him to achieve 100% attendance in his final year.

His newfound confidence and positive attitude shone through in his Year 11 work experience placement, which he completed at a photography store shortly before the first coronavirus lockdown. The branch manager gave Ryan full marks for his performance – including punctuality, attendance, enthusiasm, communication and ability to work as part of a team. She said, “It was a pleasure having Ryan with us in the store. He is a very likeable young man with an infectious personality. Customers even left comments on our website saying how wonderful he was.”

Now at College studying Performing Arts, another of his passions, Ryan is looking forward to seeing what the future holds. “Staff at Crookhey Hall were brilliant,” said Ryan. “My whole school day was tailored around me – it really helped me to see school differently. I was interested in photography, so staff created a new GCSE in this subject especially for me. And the emotional support was always there for me too. I haven’t decided exactly what path I want to follow yet, but I’m really enjoying my course – learning about all aspects of performing arts including acting, backstage and lighting. Being able to attend school has really boosted my confidence and opened up so many new possibilities for my future.”
*A different name has been used for privacy purposes

Samantha Lea
Author: Samantha Lea

Samantha Lea
Headteacher at Crookhey Hall School | | + posts

Samantha Lea is Headteacher at Crookhey Hall School, Lancashire, a SEMH secondary setting that helps serial school refusers experience success in education and transform their futures.

Crookhey Hall - part of Acorn Education and Care and Outcomes First Group - draws referrals from local authorities in the surrounding region, including Blackpool, Cumbria, Fleetwood, Preston, Leyland, Wigan, Blackburn and Lancaster. The school has an excellent reputation for re-engaging learners who are unable to cope in a mainstream environment, and recently extended its provision to meet the growing demand for individualised learning to support vulnerable pupils. Throughout the pandemic the school remained open to meet pupils’ education and wellbeing needs.

Parents and carers interested in finding out about Crookhey Hall School and its suitability for their child are welcome to get in touch directly with the Admissions Manager on 07875 159 404 or email


  1. Parent blaming at its best…. In my professional experience many ‘school attendance issues’, (and please let’s call it this instead of school refusal because in my experience a child is not refusing to go to school but experiencing heightened anxiety making then unable to attend school) are due to unmet needs, anxiety or some sort of trauma. This is very very different from parents views or expectations. Many children have un-identified SEN.

    Also parents are backed into a corner by schools and EWOs.

    A child’s mental health is far greater importance than school attendance. A child is unable to learn if they are full of anxiety.

    Making all children fit into the same shaped hole where the hole is square, yet only 30% of children are square shaped is ludicrous.

    If a flower is struggling to grow, you change the environment not the flower.

    Maybe if schools were to have a greater understanding of autism, anxiety, PDA and mental health as a whole and the government weren’t so set on Victorian education methods than we would have children who flourish….

  2. Having read the article by the headteacher of a Secondary School about serial school refusers via your post on Facebook I can understand why some parents are upset.

    First and foremost is the universal government and Local Authority insistence that the majority of children with any special education, health or social care need can be provided for in main stream Primary schools without any real training for the teachers in identifying the needs or being able to resource the correct provision for those needs.

    Parent blaming is the default position and, for any real change to happen those in authority, need to be accountable.

    Ideally schools and parents should work in partnership and, where this is not happening it certainly doesn’t help for parents to be blamed.

    Please look at changing teacher training and a Whole School SEND approach in all Primary schools especially.

    Ignoring a child’s needs for the Primary years only leads to more and more chidren with increasingly complex needs, including anxiety, and a much more expensive solution of specialist provision in Secondary education.

  3. This is article so off the mark from beginning to end.

    If I want heart surgery- I’m not going to ask a hospital director to advise.

    This needs to be corrected urgently and honestly. It’s a mistake. Years in service as a Head Teacher does not = qualification.

    We have a huge problem-Teachers do not receive adequate SEN training.

    This unfortunately makes it worse and will validate other inadequately trained professionals. It’s out their- to read and validate total misunderstanding of what is a very complex picture. If it was in a general education magazine it wouldn’t be so bad.

    There needs to be a procedure/ expertise in place. ABA articles next?

    I think it’s a good opportunity to discuss who really is qualified to make recommendations/ advise on these issues.

    It would be even better if Samantha Lea can demonstrate “growth mindset”- perhaps write what she learned following the negative response?

    Its critical event in a few peoples learning. We all have them- no shame attached to admitting the mistake. It’s actually for the greater good.

    A hands up we got it wrong will go a long way and even demonstrate the real problem.

  4. There were parts of this article that were good (school home partnership) and parts that were inadequate or misleading (understanding the situation) and parts that were massively misleading (referral to CAMHS?!). Please talk to Not Fine In School for a better understanding of why this happens and then the partnership will work much better. Overall, a disappointing article.

    • Or even better, Louise Parker Engels former co-founder of NFIS now co-director of Define Fine CIC who provides learning and webinar sessions to look behind the term “school refuser” and understand the myths and the facts. 😊

  5. This has got to be one of the most worrying articles I have come across. It is completely missing the mark, and misleading for teachers, parents and children. First of all, school refusal implies choice. My daughter has been unable to attend school for over 2 and a half years, due to severe mental health issues, debilitating anxiety, prolific self harming and late diagnosis of autism. She had been masking for so long, she eventually burnt out completely and has been unable to attend her mainstream setting ever since. She has been persuaded, cajoled, encouraged, threatened, supported, all to no avail.
    The relentless toxic positive spin that the SENCO and the LA promote about graded approaches and desensitisation have done absolutely nothing but worsen her mental health. My daughter is a bright, funny, independent thinker and has more insight into what she needs than the so called experts who are all pushing for her to attend mainstream school. She is absolutely desperate to get back into education. She loves to learn, particularly when it includes her own interests. She isn’t a school refuser. There are barriers to her receiving an education, and none of them are to do with her lack of ability or willingness to learn. What she needs is a specialist educational setting with appropriately qualified and experienced teachers. As an autistic adult, the whole tone of this article is ableist, lacks insight and is extremely disappointing. I was looking at suitability for a specialist school placement for my daughter, and the outcomes first group were on my list to consult. This article has completely put me off. I’m at a loss to comprehend why a headteacher of a specialist school would write this. It reads like a “how to get your naughty child into school when you lack adequate parenting skills” manual.
    This outdated and ill informed writing is being read and digested by SENCOs up and down the land. No wonder the system is failing our children when this is the take home message. Please, in future, ask the kids why they can’t attend. Ask them what their barriers are. Ask the parents what they need. The LAs need to stop making it so difficult to get the right provision in place. We should be supportive enablers when it comes to getting the right provision, not disabling our children who are already paralysed with fear and anxiety around school. Generic approaches simply do not work, particularly for neurodivergent children. Kids do well when they can, Mrs Lea. Kids do well when they can.

  6. Goodness here we go again parent blame and simplify the real anxiety issues that our autistic children face into a refusal because of stupid small things.

    Panic attacks are not fabricated it’s because their needs are not met in school. Try dragging a child in distress into school Lordy I would be negligent as a parent!

  7. This article repeatedly gives parents’ poor experiences of school as a “reason” for school refusal by children. This is shockingly off the mark. I’m a parent of a school refuser (three years) and I loved school, to the point where I became a teacher myself. My children have only ever heard positive and encouraging things about school and I have always had positive relationships with my children’s schools.
    I have been trying to get my daughter an EHCP for years as it was clear that she had SEN. She finally got diagnosed with ASD at the age of 13 and it’s taken two more years to get her an EHCP and find an appropriate school for her.
    If a child is happy in school and FEELS SAFE then they will not become a school refuser (Maslow’s hierarchy of needs- safety is necessary before learning can happen).
    The main reasons for school refusal are-
    Undiagnosed SEND
    Unmet needs (educationally and emotionally)
    School trauma (eg shame induced by traffic light systems and the ignorant belief of teachers that behaviour is a choice rather than communication)

    The government need to make the process of EHCP assessment more accessible and Schools need to look at all the research that shows that behaviour is communication and NOT A CHOICE and make classrooms properly inclusive because then school refusals will reduce significantly.

  8. Shaming and blaming children and labelling them as “serial refusers”

    Children are not “fabricating” illness, anxiety comes in many ways and with countless real physical sensations and symptoms. Yes, they can subside as quickly as they come on when the trigger or ithreat s removed and return exactly the same way or another way as soon as it reappears.

    These children are not refusing. They are simply not having their needs met, sometimes not even having them identified.

    The majority of these children are experiencing and dealing with the trauma of school.

    There is no support for the schools, such as a specific Anxiety Based School Avoidance worker with adequate training and experience in this field and mental health. No register code. Inadequate training of SEND as a whole and an underlying need to please thise they’re accountable to by upping attendance and grades. No time to take for this. School is such a rush. Teachers there to teach. Nobody actually there to support.

  9. Please show some of the replies above in the next magazine publication!!

    As a qualified teacher I tried to get my child an ehcp for YEARS but she was academically doing well so 2 schools refused to even consider it. I eventually applied direct to the local authority myself.

    When she could no longer go through the school doors it was not a ‘ choice, it was sheer terror. She totally froze.
    Day after day of fear, nightmares, hiding, meltdowns.
    Her anxiety was debilitating.
    Why? Because she was undiagnosed autistic and adhd, masking in school.

    The headteacher who wrote this article needs to understand that the ehcp process can be very much to blame!!
    – undiagnosed neurodevelopmental conditions
    – a battle to get initial assessments
    – poorly written ehcps with no specified or quantified provision
    – provision written for the WRONG diagnoses and conditions.
    – schools not following the ehcp.

    The emotional strain on parents is huge. Once the damage has been done there is actual trauma for the child and parents. Getting therapy is very very hard with waiting lists very long. That is the reality. Many children are then stuck at home for months waiting for therapy and the right provision that they can manage.

    If a teacher has a breakdown and can’t go to work- they are signed off sick and offered medication and therapy. If a child has a breakdown – the finger points at the parents and their inability to get them into school.

  10. I’m sure if the Author had ever had to coax a child out of wardrobe who didn’t want to go to School because the noise hurt their ears, they too would be amazingly positive and have high expectations regarding a school that wasn’t meeting need.
    I’m glad that the specialist independent School turned around that boys life. The parenting and child blaming at the beginning of the article is why most main stream schools are establishing barriers to School Attendance. It’s never the child’s job to change it’s always the Schools job to change the environment.

  11. It’s all been said by others in remarks. For me this article simple gives insight into the false belief system which contributes so heavily to educational failure provided by many schools.

    The partnership discussed is difficult if not impossible to nurture with some schools due to their eagerness to blame child and parent,

    When my child entered middle school this year overwhelmed after 5 years of struggling she lost the battle on many days.
    But school didn’t want to listen. I was advised I needed partnering classes and my child was manipulative and pampered, this was done in front of her (10 years old). On first contact she and I were told mummy will go to jail if you don’t go to school.

    This by people who did not know her nor I.

    Now diagnosed with dyslexia and dyscalculia their reasonable adjustment is to move her from set 1 to set 4 without discussion.

    Senco say she’s to busy to fill in referrals, and not enough money or manpower to provide the pastoral care my daughter is entitled to.

    There is no partnership and blame for failure firmly sits with the system.

    I am here I am willing, my daughter wants to be in school, wants not to be judged on her struggle but her achievements. But the school is too busy.

    Heart breakingly sad .

    So I pay for her counselling, a tutor and her therapies and the school pats themselves in the back .


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