Making sense of school avoidance


Why do some children choose not to go to school? 

Pause for a moment. Think of the things that you refuse to do. Perhaps, walk down the street alone at night, go to a lecture on the errors in translation made by a medieval monk, or use the underground on a hot summer’s day. Challenged, you might explain: “I am frightened if I am not in a group of friends”, “I am not interested in this topic and cannot see any connection to my life”,  and “It is hot, airless and dirty”. And you would expect your explanation to be accepted. Most importantly, other people would just assume that you were exerting your power of choice; no-one would label you as “extra-ordinary” or “having a problem” or in any way “deficient”. But this is what we frequently do with children and young people who refuse to go to school. Immediately, we put them in the category of “school refuser”. This category constitutes “a problem” because it is administratively inconvenient for us; we think of the negative influence on attendance figures which are prized as a performance indicator. What’s more, we cannot really understand it; after all, doesn’t everyone go to school, and isn’t school a good thing?

Psychological literature on school refusal outweighs the educational literature, even though the part that school plays in the process has been acknowledged (Atkinson and Hornby, 2002: Archer et al., 2003). With any type of “special educational need”, a common reaction is to adopt a medical model and pathologise the young person who is not conforming to “the norm”. It is so easy to assume that the relevant questions are “what is your problem” and “what is wrong with this young person and/or his/her family?” The assumption is that what is being offered and shunned is something desirable, necessary or beneficial to the young person, and we may be bemused if they don’t seem to appreciate it.

However, we might take a rather different stance and ask what we, as educators, are doing wrong. How are we failing and how might we change things so that they are more attractive to our clients? Are we asking what effects our school organisation, policy and curriculum are having on our pupils?  What are we doing to make young people want to come to school, and how are we meeting the Every Child Matters stipulations about making pupils feel safe, happy and able to achieve and participate?

Can we make our schools less intimidating places where children feel safe to walk around the site at all times (do we have friendship stops, buddying systems)? Can we ensure that all children are engaged in their learning and that they have a reasonable degree of choice within their programme of learning? Can we ensure that schools are well lit, clean, well ventilated and at a comfortable temperature?

One of the difficulties with “school refusal” is that there is little agreement about what we are talking about. A study undertaken by the National Foundation for Educational Research (Archer et al., 2003), tried to conceptualise the difference between school refusal and school phobia, but it did not find an accurate or consistent distinction between the terms as they were used among those involved in the study. Pellegrini (2007) used the term “extended school non-attendance”, which has the advantage of implying a continuum of behaviour from the odd day of unauthorised absence through to persistent non-attendance. But if we are interested in the causes of non-attendance – with the aim of responding to that non-attendance by a programme resulting in the reintegration of the young person to school or, perhaps, to a different form of education, such as home schooling – then no categorisation is going to suffice.

One pupil may experience anxiety about separation from the protection of a parent; another may want to stay at home to protect a parent from a violent partner or to care for a parent or sibling; another may be disengaged from the curriculum as experienced at school and have no interest in formal learning; another may have activities and interests to pursue at home that are so powerfully engaging that lessons in class pale into insignificance; another may be being bullied or humiliated at school by peers or adults; another may be frightened of the performance demands of the classroom; another may prefer to acquire status in the culture in which respected family members are engaged and which may not harmonise with that of the school.

Of course, some people may have a genuine phobia, in that the fear of school is, apparently, irrational, though often therapy may reveal an underlying reason. It is only if we talk to the young people concerned that we can begin to understand their perspectives and, thus, what are the appropriate responses to make to their concerns. Only then can we begin to “educate” them about their concerns, while we let their concerns educate us.

However, talking about such matters may not be easy for children. Some may feel that their non-attendance makes them lose control, while others may use non-attendance as a means of taking control into their own hands.

Are there other messages that we can give these children? How many children are told that they have been missed when they return after absence, whatever its cause? How many feel that the school community is the poorer if they are not present? How many feel that they can play a unique part within the community and that they have a defined role and responsibilities? What difference would these things make to levels of non-attendance?

We must, of course, rely on evidence, and there is much research to be done on the obverse of school refusal, the circumstances that lead to high levels of attendance and low levels of school avoidance. Pellegrini (2007) provides a recent review that highlights the negative discourse that surrounds refusal and non-attendance. Indeed, in some situations, we might wonder why more young people do not refuse to go to school and we might be concerned about their conformity in attending when there would seem to be little to attract them. But the business model, of listening to the customer and giving him/her what they want and/or need, cannot be irrelevant, even if it is not the sole driver of something as complex and life-determining as education. Using the stick of legislation does not solve all problems (Halsey et al., 2004) and we are foolish if we do not seek positive solutions in parallel. Moreover, it is crucial that educators seek answers to the question of what it means to make schools inclusive of “the refuser”.

Further information

Felicity Fletcher-Campbell is from the Open University.


Archer, T, Filmer-Sankery, C, Fletcher-Campbell, F. (2003).  School phobia and school refusal: research into causes and remedies. LGA research report 46. Slough: NFER.

Halsey, K, Bedford, N, Atkinson, M,  White, R, Kinder, K. (2004).  Evaluation of fast track to prosecution for school non-attendance.  DfES research report 567. London: DfES.

Pellegrini, D. (2007).  School non-attendance: definitions, meanings, responses, interventions,  Educational Psychology in Practice, 23, 1, 63-77.

Article first published in SEN Magazine issue 42: September/October 2009.

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