"Don't make me go" – Addressing the rising rate of school refusal in Victoria - Education Matters Magazine
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“Don’t make me go” – Addressing the rising rate of school refusal in Victoria

school phobia school refusal Victoria

“I don’t want to go to school,” is a phrase most parents and carers will be familiar with. But what about when a student exhibits severe and persistent distress about going to school, resulting in the refusal to go altogether?

‘School phobia,’ or school refusal, occurs when young people experience significant, ongoing, mental distress surrounding going to school. This could be due to worries about leaving home, social problems or learning difficulties.

A recent government submission to a Senate inquiry, revealed that school refusal rates grew by 50 percent in Victoria in the three years leading up to 2021, with 11,825 students in government schools absent in the second year of the pandemic.

Although not a formal diagnosis, it has become a growing problem for Victorian families, with many young people experiencing persistent distress about going to school.

The phobia, which is being referred to as “school can’t, not won’t” by Victorian parents, has a Facebook support group by the same name with more than 8000 parents and carers seeking relief from the distress this issue is causing families.

school phobia
A Senate inquiry revealed that school refusal rates grew by 50 percent in Victoria in the three years leading up to 2021.

Identifying the causes and symptoms of stress in young people

According to raisingchildren.net.au, there is rarely a single cause of school refusal. However, causes that might contribute to a young person refusing to attend school include:

  • Stressful events at home or school or with peers
  • Family and peer conflict
  • Starting or changing schools
  • Moving home
  • Bullying or teasing
  • Problems with a teacher
  • Poor school results

The parenting site also cautions parents and carers to be vigilant of the signs and symptoms in kids that school refusal may become a persistent issue, such as:

  • Crying, throwing tantrums, yelling or screaming
  • Hiding or lock themselves in their room
  • Refusing to move
  • Begging or pleading not to go
  • Complaining of aches, pains and illness before school, which generally get better if they stay home
  • Showing high levels of anxiety
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Threatening self-harm

Flexi school offers support to young people experiencing school phobia

Special Assistance School Hester Hornbrook Academy recently opened its doors in South Melbourne to the growing number of secondary school learners who are not thriving in a traditional mainstream education setting.

Offering a trauma-informed, healing-oriented learning environment, Hester Hornbrook is an independent registered school with a focus on addressing student wellbeing first in order to ensure excellent educational outcomes, providing educators and youth workers in every class.

The latest Hester Hornbrook campus is at the cutting edge of flexible education and now supports an additional 90 students who have experienced ‘school phobia or ‘school refusal’, growing levels of anxiety and mental ill-health, family violence and homelessness, or require a different educational approach to achieve academic success.

Since 2018, the number of students enrolled across Hester Hornbrook campuses in South Melbourne, Melbourne CBD, Sunshine, and Prahran each year has grown from 170 to 382 in 2022 – more than doubling in the last five years. 421 student enrolments are forecast across campuses in 2023.

A further 78 students are on Hester Hornbrook’s skyrocketing waitlist, which has more than doubled in the last 12 months alone, with expressions of interest coming from mainstream schools, parents, and services like Navigator coming into contact with young people.

Hester Hornbook Principal Sally Lasslett explained: “When mainstream schools are not able to provide the services, wellbeing, or individualised programs some young learners need, they look to us to assist. Flexible learning environments like ours complement the mainstream school system.”

“Right now, we can’t grow fast enough to meet demand. We need more places for students and call on the mainstream education system to work alongside us and other independent special assistance schools to support and smoothly transition young students if an alternative learning environment is what they need to thrive,” said Ms Lasslett.

In response to the establishment of an expert panel to advise Australian Education Ministers on improvements for students most at risk of falling behind, Ms Lasslett pointed to the exciting opportunity for education reforms to take lessons learned delivering education differently during COVID-19 and increase access to flexible learning environments that can wrap around the wellbeing supports students need to finish school and transition with good health to further education and employment.

“Students who were formally fearful of returning to school are learning to code a game or develop their own podcast in our applied learning environments and graduating secondary school with similar levels of numeracy and literacy to those learning trigonometry and reading ‘The Crucible’ in traditional school environments. They just needed a different way to learn,” she concluded.

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