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Square Peg - Please can we banish the term ‘school refusal’?

At Square Peg we refer to ‘barriers to school attendance’. This removes the notion that it’s about wilful choice or poor behaviour (ie. refusal) and the child or young person’s fault (it isn’t). Language is one of the most significant problems with this issue. It’s generally triggered by anxiety (whatever the root cause) and of course, we all get anxious and anxiety can sometimes serve us well. This leads many to dismiss it as something a child has to learn to ‘get over’, a problem created or exaggerated by an anxious parent, or something that would just be sorted by some discipline and boundaries.  

The problem is that clinical anxiety – the sort that impacts on daily living – is very different. It’s a mental health condition that’s completely debilitating and needs to be recognised as such. It’s often, but not always, related to undiagnosed or unsupported SEND, and as such, sits within the broader category of SEMH. An increasing number of children are forced down this road as they struggle to cope with the pressures of school, around testing and exams, social expectations, the sensory overload of large, busy settings or a multitude of other factors (not all school related) which impact on their ability to attend.

Layer onto this the fact that education is obligatory and you start to see why it’s such a challenging problem. There are currently 771,863 persistent absentees, with 42.8% of these absences having no formally recorded reason – numbers that far exceed exclusions data yet receive virtually no attention. It’s poorly understood, there’s no effective national screening tool (yet...we’re working on it!) and no quick fixes. It’s also a global problem, cue INSA, the International Network for School Attendance.  Still in its infancy, academically-driven, and with an American-Dutch-Australian-Scandinavian steering committee, Square Peg is an active member. 

There  are other challenges in providing support for these children and young people and their families. The system is more punitive than supportive and the often hostile response and lack of patience and flexibility only serves to exacerbate the problem. There’s a real need for school systems to acknowledge the delay in securing assessments and referring on to outside agencies – the current attendance policy and absence codes were simply never designed for long-term absences with no real categorical understanding of underlying need. The most important thing that school staff can do in this situation is to respond with compassion and understanding, appreciate the impact on the whole family and build the trust that is so necessary to engage and collaborate with those closest to the child.  

Square Peg is about effecting change, but we work closely with other organisations that support the same families. One such organisation is the aptly named Not Fine In School (NFIS), which has a website loaded with resources for both parents and schools, plus separate closed Facebook Groups for professionals and parents. The latter is a huge source of support for these families, and in many ways our evidence base. At only three years old, it has 14,300 members and counting (pandemic aside, it has been growing at a rate of 600-800 new members every month). 

We’ve included a few statistics from past NFIS surveys to provide much-needed insight into some of the more common parent experiences (the full survey can be found on the NFIS website):


68% of the time it starts before secondary school.

The underlying causes are predominantly undiagnosed or unsupported SEND (#1), the school environment (#2), anxiety disorders (#3) or social/friendship issues (#4).

SEMH, autism, sensory processing disorders and anxiety are the most common diagnoses.


20% of parents did not know about EHCPs.  

20% were told not to bother applying.

For 71% it took longer than 6 months, with 12% taking over two years.

For 65%, the EHCP did not help.

The most helpful intervention normally provided was a quiet room. Sadly most interventions offered by schools were unhelpful.

Alternative education was hard to come by with 13% receiving something within a month. Often the school is told they must meet need. 


43% were encouraged to force attendance, another 28% were pressured, but refused.

In 96% of cases forcing attendance either didn’t help (40%) or made things worse (56%).

Only 14% of parents thought the absence code was correct. 29% of absences were unauthorised. 60% told us it was difficult or extremely difficult to get absences authorised. 


Parenting was blamed in 60% of cases and the child’s attitude criticised in 68% of cases.

For 30%, the threat of fines is real.

Over 30% were referred to social services, with 20% accused of Fabricating or Inducing Illness (FII). 

So based on what we know from parents, plus reflective learning from the academic projects we are involved in, if we want to resolve non-attendance issues, we need to:

• harness compassion

• build trust

• demonstrate flexibility and patience

• identify the unmet need underlying the behaviour  

• work with the child/young person and their family (“doing with” not “doing to”)

We recognise that the system makes some of this difficult, if not impossible, and there are individuals out there desperately trying to do the right thing by these children and their families. We salute you; you are proof that every individual has a degree of agency to change this. Prioritise students’ mental health and emotional wellbeing, recognise that addressing the drivers to non-attendance takes time, commitment and patience, and you won’t go far wrong.