Record: Isabel Rose Gregory and Anita Purcell, “Extended School Non-Attenders’ Views: Developing Best Practice.” Educational Psychology in Practice, 30, No. 1 (2014), 37-50. [Abstract]

Summary: This article from the UK by Isabel Rose Gregory from the West Berkshire Educational Psychology Service and Anita Purcell from the National Educational Psychology Service is not about home education but rather extended school nonattendance. The authors aim to identify the key concerns and experiences of extended school non-attenders in order to inform the service delivery of the Educational Psychology Services (EPS), an institution that attempts to successfully include all children within mainstream school settings.

Compared to truancy (which is a conduct disorder), extended school non-attendance is linked to separation anxiety and extreme distress when a student is forced to go to school. There are four reasons for extended school non-attendance documented in the existing literature which are:

  1. Avoidance of specific, negative school-based stimuli such as speaking in public or participating in physical education.
  2. Escape from negative social situations with peers or teachers.
  3. Attention-getting or separation anxious behavior.
  4. Positive experiences being provided outside of school such as watching television or playing video games.

In order for EPS to get non-attenders back into schools, they must listen to the children and the reasons they have for not attending school. They must then work with the schools to try and change what is pushing children out. However, the voice of the child has not always been well documented, and that is what this article hopes to change.

The sample of five families (five parents and three young people) was obtained by contacting parents of secondary aged children on the registers for elective home education and the home tuition service. The sample size and response rate, as admitted by the authors, are incredibly low and not representative of non-attenders as a whole. Three of the families were home educated and two families were enrolled in the home tuition service. The families from the home tuition service (meaning that they received tutors at home with the intention of returning to school) felt very supported, while the home educators did not. Three of the students have a medical condition: two have anxiety/depression, and one has Asperger syndrome. All of the students reported having limited social interaction, though some used the internet to stay in contact with friends.

A number of experiences at school led to the students’ extended non-attendance: illness, moving schools, fear of a particular teacher, discomfort with misbehaving peers, and bullying. Essentially, the authors found that extended school non-attendance is a complex interplay of many factors. Three of the families felt that they were perceived by the school as responsible for their child’s absence. This trend of blaming the family removes the blame from the school. All of the families felt a great deal of negative emotions about their child’s extended school non-attendance. In two of the families, the child’s voice was not sought by school officials to address the difficulties they experienced. Despite their challenges, three of the families still identified higher education as a future goal.

After describing the findings the authors shift their discussion to the common term “school refuser.” They do not like this label because it does not capture the problems their study uncovered. Children with medical problems, for example, should not be said to be refusing school. Also, the term school refuser implies that the cause of nonattendance is the child’s choice and not the school environment. For these reasons, the term “extended school non-attender” is preferred. In closing, the authors recommend that these students no longer be looked at from the medical perspective where the problem is identified as being inside the person, but rather from a systems theory model where the situation is looked at as a complex interaction of individual, family, and community circumstances.

Appraisal: Since the sample size is only five families, the article doesn’t give us a great understanding of extended school non-attenders. However, it does raise some interesting points to consider about families who home educate not by choice but because their child cannot or will not return to school. For example, while homeschooling can be challenging for many, it may be even more difficult for families who homeschool because they see no other choice. Financial worries because of a sudden loss of second income could be a real concern in addition to the feelings of unpreparedness by a parent who was not originally called to be their child’s teacher. Another point to remember as brought up by the article is that these families, like any families, resist simple classification. Although some studies create rigid categories such as “homeschooling because of illness” or “homeschooling because of bullying,” the reality is that every family will have multiple, intertwined reasons for home educating their children. For an additional understanding of home education with extended school non-attenders, Thomas & Wray (2013) and Stroobant (2006) would be two studies to start with.

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