School is a central part of life for most children in the UK. Indeed, they are required by law to remain in education until the age of 18 in England. Therefore, as a parent, if your child refuses to go to school it can be very scary, particularly not knowing what will happen to you and your child while you are dealing with school refusal. School refusal has also increased in the last few years, due to the effects of lockdowns, mental health issues, and increasing technology allowing students to work at home. However, as a student with experience of school refusal in the past, I will explain the process and things that happen when children refuse to go to school, and how you as a parent can help your child get back into education.
If your child refuses to go to school in the UK then you as the parent have responsibility to ensure they are being educated. Their school will contact you to help you encourage your child, and support you both. If you do not work with your child’s school and your child’s attendance drops below 90%, the local council will get involved. This can mean you as a parent are fined, or even face prison time in extreme cases. Your child will also miss vital education and socialising. Supporting your child to go back to school is important.
While this should have given you a short answer to your concerns, please read on for full details of what happens for children who refuse to go to school, and how you as a parent can help.
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What happens if your child doesn’t go to school?
Children are required to be in education from the age of 5 until the end of the school year they turn 16, then in England a further 2 years until after they are 18. This means that not being in education is illegal, and as a parent you must ensure that your child gets a “full time education that meets their needs”. For more information on this please see this Think Student article.
This article will focus on what happens if your child does not attend school, rather than home-schooling. Refusing to go to school is called “school refusal” and is usually caused by fear or anxiety. It is more common in students with special educational needs, but can happen with any child.
The first step will be you being contacted by your child’s school if they do not turn up, even if it is only for one day. Excused absences are given for illness, and if you have permission from the headteacher. Unexcused absence is any that does not fit into these guidelines.
At this point, the school will offer support to you and your child if the absences become persistent. This could include counselling for your child to help discover why they do not want to attend, as well as talking to you about strategies you can take to help your child stay in school. More information about this can be found in the section below.
If you are doing what your child’s school suggests and complying with them, letting them know that your child is dealing with anxiety, then you are very unlikely to be prosecuted. Your child’s school, you, and the education authorities all want the best for your child, and working with them is the way to support your child and get them help that they may need.
If your child’s attendance drops below 90% (or 19 days off school) with unexcused absences their school will contact the local council, who will then contact you. You will be warned by school that this is going to happen. The council may refer you to the education welfare society, and other legal steps can take place if you are not trying to help them get back into education and working with school.
These legal steps can include a parenting order, which means you have to attend parenting classes, or an education supervision order. If you do not comply with these then each parent can be fined £60, increasing to £120 if you do not pay within 21 days. If you have not paid after a month you may be prosecuted in court for your child’s absence from school.
Each local council has different rules on when fines and prosecution can happen, please see the Government tool here to find out the rules for your area. More information on the legal consequences of your child not attending school is available here.
If you are prosecuted for not getting your child an appropriate education, for example by allowing them to miss school very often without reason, you could get a fine of up to £2,500, a community order, or a jail sentence of up to 3 months. However, these are extreme measures, and if you are working with your child’s school to support them then you are very unlikely to face these punishments.
Why might your child be refusing to go to school?
There are many reasons why your child may refuse to go to school, but they often amount to the same underlying issue: anxiety. However, knowing the cause might help you to make it easier for your child to go back, and it can also help the school to develop a plan to support your child better in the future.
One possible cause may be bullying. Schoolchildren can be very unkind, and bullying is sadly quite common in UK schools especially with increasing social media use for children, where cyberbullying is increasing. If your child is refusing to tell you why they do not want to go, it may be because they are ashamed about being bullied.
Another cause can be academic concerns. Some children become very anxious about schoolwork, and struggling with learning can make children feel like they need to avoid school, particularly if they have tests and are afraid of failing.
Academic concerns may also be due to special educational needs, even if these are not yet diagnosed or recognised. It can be much harder for children with SEND to engage with their lessons and socialise, and this can make school exceedingly difficult for children, especially if they do not have support such as an IEP in place (more on this later).
Other reasons for not wanting to go to school can be behavioural problem. These could include children who dislike authority, have anger problems, or simply feeling they would rather do something other than school. Separation anxiety is also common in younger children.
All these issues can be debilitating for children but understanding them can help you as a parent to understand your child better and given them the best help you can. More information on anxiety and school from Think Student is found in this article.
How does missing school impact a child’s education?
Most parents focus on how missing school is impacting a child’s educational attainment, and rightly so. Missing even a few days of school a year can reduce students’ chances of getting good GCSEs, showing the importance of attending school to your child’s grades and academic outcomes.
However, scores are not the only measure of academics, or the only value of school. By missing school, your child is also not getting a chance to complete tasks and homework from their teachers, losing valuable feedback that will help them improve. They also miss key lessons that count towards their exams, meaning they have to work very hard to catch up later on.
In addition, school is a key place for children to make friends and socialise. Without the opportunity to regularly meet others of the same age and take part in clubs focussed on their interests many children struggle to make friends, and this can be extremely isolating. Therefore, attending school is one of the best ways to help your child make connections and reduce loneliness.
How can you help your child get back to school?
Each child struggling with school refusal is different, and therefore the best way to support your child is to talk to them. Talk about what is bothering them, what they find difficult about school, and how they feel it could be better. Young Minds have this page with many suggestions on how best to talk to your child about this, and some tips on how to support them.
Where can you get outside support?
The first and most important place to seek advice is from your child’s school. If you let them know that your child is struggling then you can work together to support them, and that is the best way to help overcome your child’s school refusal.
Contact your child’s form tutor or head of year and ask about what support they have. Every school has dealt with school refusal before, and they usually have provisions in place to support children so they do not miss out on learning and can transition back into school more comfortably. This can also help resolve friendship problems and bullying, which concern many children.
If your child is worried about school work or failing their classes, then considering private tuition can really help them get back to school, particularly if they have had a lot of time off. This can help them improve their confidence and engage with their teachers, as well as making the transition back to school easier.
If you feel that your child needs more support and none of the above methods have worked, then contact your child’s GP. Your GP can supply professional advice, and also prescribe therapy or assessments for SEND conditions that your child may have, to help them get support that they need. They may also suggest that your child get an IEP, or education plan, to support them in school.
Sources such as helplines and charities have a lot of help available for students who refuse school. Charities such as Childline and Kooth have helplines for children to contact for confidential support, and also help for parents, while websites such as Action for Children, and Autism UK can give you good advice and help with supporting your child.
What can you do at home?
There are many ways you can also support your child at home. Even simple things like having a clear morning routine can really help your child to go to school feeling calmer and more prepared for the day.
Also, you should avoid arguing with or getting angry at your child. Looking to support them, find the core issues, and validate their feelings will show your child that you are on their side, and make it much easier to get them back into school with a good relationship.
Another potential solution could be home-schooling your child or transferring them to a different school if things are really not working. Guides to this from Think Student can be found here for home-schooling, and support on school transfer is here.
Above all, have a consistent plan to help you and your child understand what is happening. Keep your morning routine the same even if your child is not going to school. If needed, set home learning tasks that your child’s school may provide, and avoid gaming or TV time which may make home more “fun” than staying at home.
Remember, supporting your child is the goal here, and by trying to help them you are doing the best you can. School refusal is not your fault and does not mean you are a bad parent, just try to support your child as best you can, and you will get through this difficult time.