A Present Dilemma: Why Children Stop Going to School – Anne Morrison
My daughter was in her last year of primary school when COVID-19 pressed the pause button on all of our lives and she stopped attending school.
Five months earlier and recently separated, I’d moved with my children into a rental property in the heart of a small Scottish town best known for world-class golf, rosy sandstone buildings and miles of perfect sandy beach.
Then lockdown arrived, and with it, a surreal lucidity.
For weeks, the sun shone. The empty greens surrounding the historic town were perfect. The air was exceptionally clear and still. In the streets around the cathedral, cats strolled past silent cafes and took dustbaths in the middle of the road.
Meanwhile, in our rental flat, behind a casement window and under the eaves of an attic bedroom, my eleven year old daughter slept. She slept for twenty or more hours at a stretch, barely moving position. She slept like a stone, a fairytale princess I was unable to wake with a kiss, a blast of music or a mug of hot chocolate.
Emerging from duvet-land, she wandered zombie-like through the rooms of the flat during her brief waking hours, devouring leftovers or a bowl of cereal at odd hours before retreating to the attic. She was lethargic and grumpy, avoiding all exercise. She had zero interest in school work. There were difficulties with concentration. Her mood and her self-esteem were low.
At first, I interpreted the changes as a reaction to lockdown. A hiatus brought on by an absence of routine and a lack of social contact. We were temporarily bunkered but life would soon catch up with us and we would swing into action on a positive forward momentum.
I was wrong. Lockdown ended and I went back to work. My sons went back to school and university.
But Jenny continued to sleep.
In November 2022 the independent Commission on School Reform (CSR) published a briefing paper on absence and attendance in Scottish schools. Using data gathered from local authorities, the CSR found that more than 100,000 pupils are missing a day of school every fortnight and the number of pupils with less than 50% attendance is increasing.
The impact of COVID on school attendance is undeniable, but according to the CSR, attendance rates were already slipping in the years before the pandemic. It’s a similar picture across England and Wales, with children from poorer families more likely to struggle. Some reports suggest that school appears ‘optional’ to large numbers of children and their parents.
So what was it that derailed my daughter’s schooling? Why did her peers return to the classroom when she did not? Is she typical of the thousands of children who can’t or won’t go to school?
Almost three years down the line, I’ve learned a lot about my daughter, myself and the purpose of education. Some of these lessons have been extremely tough and when I look back on some of our darkest days, I wish I’d behaved differently. Better.
What happens if a child does not attend school? For most, regular attendance makes a marked difference to final grades. It supports the development of social skills and fosters a sense of belonging and identity. It works to move the young person along a path towards a positive destination of further training, education or work.
I should know. I’m a teacher.
But for some, a perfect storm of challenging personal circumstances, rapid physical change, illness, bereavement, deprivation, a crisis of identity or a significant loss requires a different approach.
As a family, we have been fortunate. I do not underestimate the advantages and strengths we have as a family that have allowed us to manage Jenny’s absences in ways that some families cannot.
Here, then, is our story.
Grief is a powerful force that can tear at the very seams of a person. Jenny’s attendance at school plummeted then flatlined during the pandemic, but her difficulties started long before COVID-19 and the school environment wasn’t necessarily the problem.
Half-way through primary school, the sudden death of a cherished pet triggered a range of anxious behaviours in Jenny. She began to experience a choking sensation in her throat when she ate. There were night terrors. Hyperventilation. She became easily overwhelmed in class and had to sit in the Head Teacher’s office, writing down her fears on little scraps of paper and placing them in a sealed jar so that she could continue with her day. She was no longer able to take part in school concerts and plays, finding the pressure of public performance all too much.
It would pass, I thought. It was a blip, a phase. She would get over it, children do.
Next came early onset menstruation. Jenny was ten and had just finished Primary 6 when she got her first period. The monthly cycle of cramps, nausea, heavy bleeding and exhaustion was soon followed by a diagnosis of anaemia and a borderline thyroid condition. Jenny didn’t want to go to school when she had a period. She was afraid her classmates wouldn’t understand what was happening to her. We wondered whether there were sanitary bins in the primary school toilets. Her teachers said it wasn’t unusual for girls to begin menstruating at the age of nine or ten. I felt intense pity for my child. I wondered how I would have coped at her age.
Towards the end of Primary 7, Jenny asked for a mobile phone. Most of her friends had one. Within months, I had confiscated it, worried that she was too young to cope with the avalanche of TikTok comments and bitchy group dynamics on WhatsApp and other platforms. I was convinced social media was having a negative impact on her mental health and I wanted to protect her.
In the years since, I’ve had days when I’ve bundled the router and all devices other than the landline into a suitcase and taken them to work with me, fearful that Jenny could be slipping down a rabbit-hole of online gaming and hidden chat rooms while I was at work.
In a joint counselling session, Jenny has said that the removal of her phone and parental snooping on her online activity was particularly difficult for her, making her feel even more isolated from her peers. Every counsellor we have seen on this journey with Jenny has either chosen not to comment on phone and internet use or has expressed a view that the removal of devices could be detrimental to her.
But there are days, still, when I want to sling the router into the sea. When I wonder about the long-term impact of daily internet use on my children’s developing minds and bodies.
Jenny’s health continued to deteriorate. She rarely left her room other than to go to the bathroom, eat with us at the dinner table or climb into the car and go to her dad’s where she would follow pretty much the same sleeping and eating pattern, albeit under a different roof. During one memorable summer, she voluntarily left the house with me only twice in six weeks, by which time I was in despair.
Jenny’s GP arranged a variety of physical tests over many months, but other than low iron, there seemed to be no obvious root cause for her tiredness. We kept an eye on her sleeping habits, which were erratic. Serotonin was prescribed to help regulate her sleep cycle. Her paediatriction made a diagnosis of chronic fatigue, informing us that it could take weeks, months, even years, for her to improve. My despair deepened.
Jenny was missing enormous amounts of schoolwork. She had next to no contact with her peers. She had disappeared from view, refusing to appear on Zoom calls with her grandparents and staying in her room if anyone visited us at home. Her friends asked me what had happened to her. They missed her. Some sent cards and gifts.
I longed for a more tangible cause to explain her lethargy so that together with her father and the school, a solution could be found for Jenny, a roadmap back to ‘normality’. Sometimes I was convinced the cause of her non-attendance was physical. At other times, I believed it was down to anxiety. There were days I felt totally stumped by it all.
Jenny was referred to CAMHS and online sessions with a counsellor were scheduled. But there was a problem. The sessions were timetabled during working hours and Jenny was still sleeping excessive amounts. Unless she woke naturally, she was extremely difficult to rouse. Before each appointment was due to start, I would call her now reinstated mobile and the home landline repeatedly from my work, both of which had been placed next to her bed.
But Jenny was often unwakeable, sunk in a deep sleep coma. If she wasn’t at her dad’s, I would leave work and drive home to wake her up, or he would. Dopey and confused, she didn’t want to switch her camera on and struggled to engage with the sessions. She began skipping appointments, logging out as soon as I got in my car to return to work. I was embarrassed and angry, knowing how long some children had to wait to get a CAMHS appointment. Jenny felt like a failure and her anxiety levels went through the roof. Together with the counsellor, it was agreed that we should stop the sessions until she felt ready to engage.
Jenny slept through Christmas two years in a row. She slept through most of her 12th and 13th birthdays. She wept out of sheer exhaustion on shopping trips and family holidays, unable to leave the car, the hotel room.
Our relationship suffered. On a few occasions, I tried to lift her out of bed. I made hollow ultimatums. I was afraid for her and for myself. I became frustrated and shouted at her, asking if she understood the implications of not attending school. She said that I didn’t understand and she just wanted to be left alone, to sleep. Relatives suggested I should simply love her.
But what did that mean? Was it loving to leave my child lying in her bed every day when I went to work? Several times, worried that she might self-harm after her counsellor had emailed saying I should lock away all sharp objects and medicines, I stayed home with her, or her father did, but this was unsustainable, we both had jobs to go to and our youngest son needed us too.
It was agreed that Jenny should spend some time with her aunt in a different part of Scotland rather than being alone and unsupervised during the day. Arranging this meant deviating from the local authority Child Plan which was focused on getting Jenny back into school, even if only one hour a week. We had to explain why we weren’t following the plan.
It was hard to know what was best. It was hard to know how to love.
And of course, as her parents we regularly questioned ourselves and picked over our own failings. A divorce is shattering for a young person. Seams are undone and remade differently. Our child was sad, we could see that. The family home had been rented out. Jenny was frightened when I put the cat out at night in case she never came back.
At one point, a change of school seemed like a good idea. A radical change, a set of new challenges, a fresh start and a different educational focus might shake Jenny out of her torpor. A trial week in a fee paying school was arranged. Jenny lasted until lunchtime before calling her dad from the toilets and asking him to take her home.
Throughout it all, Jenny’s brothers and her wider extended family buoyed her up with positive comments about her digital artwork, her gaming skills, her love of animals and nature and her sense of humour. We all did our best. Biology lessons at the kitchen table. Pond studies and painting with her aunt. Dog walking. Game design with her older brother and her uncle. Halloween costumes. Catching COVID, twice.
Life went on. It had to.
Jenny’s school has been consistently supportive and understanding. She came out of mainstream classes and joined the ASN base. On the days she makes it into school, she can attend scheduled lessons, or not. The base has a range of social and educational activities on offer which Jenny can dip into, or not. Sessions with the local authority educational psychologist have been particularly helpful during these tentative early days of re-engagement.
As Jenny’s attendance has picked up, we continue to build in rest days to help her cope. A full day in school or attendance at an after-school event often means a day or more of recovery. I have learned that my daughter wants to go to school, but on many days, she simply cannot. Understanding this has been a game-changer. We celebrate the little wins. Success has been redefined for us.
Awake for longer and longer periods of time, Jenny is warm and communicative, affectionate towards her family where once she was distant. She takes real joy in her pets and is increasingly comfortable in her own skin. She bakes and decorates delicious cakes for us and this week, she completed a three-day hike with her dad, involving two nights sleeping in a bothy and miles of walking in sleet showers and headwinds. A couple of years ago, she barely had enough energy to walk from her bedroom to the car.
It doesn’t feel like an exaggeration to describe her progress as miraculous.
Jenny is currently being assessed through the Neurodevelopmental Assessment Service (NDAS) as suggested to us by her educational psychologist. We recently received a letter from NDAS explaining that the assessment process may take up to three years or more, such is the current pressure on the service. By the time we receive a diagnosis, Jenny may already have left school.
On some levels, a diagnosis matters. I certainly wished for one many times over the last three years. But in other ways, it matters less than the approach taken, both at home and in school. There is, I believe, no single defining cause for Jenny’s absence from school and there will be no single, straightforward solution to her reengagement. With this, she agrees.
Is Jenny a typical non-attender? It’s difficult to know. How do we help children experiencing regular or prolonged periods of absence? To answer this question, more data is needed on why children missing from Scottish schools are unable or unwilling to attend, but poor mental health is a defining factor in many studied cases.
My daughter’s paediatrician is a wise and caring man. During one consultation with her, he prescribed growing vegetables. At her next consultation, Jenny presented the doctor with a tub of homegrown tomatoes, whole and perfect. The doctor was delighted. Over the moon, in fact.
It was a significant moment. We had become used to measuring Jenny’s progress in terms of figures, timetables and percentages. Ferritin levels, days of absence, sleep cycles, test results. But this doctor had spent enough time getting to know my daughter that he understood her interest in plants.
Tomatoes, that on some days Jenny had forgotten to water, or that her dad had watered for her. Tomatoes she’d tended to herself. A most unexpected and welcome sign of growth, and of recovery.
Anne Morrison is a Scottish secondary school teacher.