School Can’t – HEN and the Senate Inquiry

By Pavlina McMaster

A note about the language used: we believe that children who struggle with school attendance are genuinely unable to attend school without outward difficulties, rather than it being a willful choice. For this reason, the term ‘School Can’t’ is used in place of ‘School Refusal’ throughout this article.

Going to school is an expectation that society puts on children and parents. Most children cope with this expectation, but some cannot.

‘School refusal’ (School Can’t) is a common precursor to families choosing to home educate their children. This often comes after years of parents and children persisting in coming up with strategies to mitigate the anxiety and stressors that have led to School Can’t, and/or attempting to reintegrate children back into a school setting (mainstream as well as alternative settings).

In October 2022, the Federal Senate opened an inquiry into ‘The national trend of school refusal and related matters’. The Home Education Network made a submission to the inquiry in December 2022. As a result of that submission, I was contacted by the Senate Committee and asked to appear as a witness at the Senate hearing in Melbourne on the 23rd of February. Four representatives from HEN appeared as witnesses, and you can read the transcript of that hearing in Hansard, the official transcript that reports on proceedings in Parliament.

We decided to run a survey to collect stories and data to take to the hearing. With only one week between being asked to be witnesses and appearing in front of the Senate Committee, we sent out links to our survey via Facebook groups, parent organisations, and a few sympathetic professionals.

In six days, we collected 439 responses. We shared the interim report on the survey data with the Senate Committee and tabled it at the hearing.

Following the success of our survey in such a short time period, we decided to continue collecting responses. A second submission was made to the Inquiry a month later, and included the results from 616 respondents.

After the hearings, the Senate Committee asked for supplementary submissions in relation to ‘Educational Attainment’ in children with School Can’t, so HEN ran another survey in July. We received 540 responses in 11 days, and made a third submission to the Senate Inquiry.

Our submissions speak to home education’s overwhelmingly positive outcomes for kids who struggle to attend school and experience School Can’t, but also provide a wealth of information on how families are impacted by School Can’t.

Our survey results demonstrated that parents and caregivers do not make the decision to home educate lightly. Many of them struggle for years to make improvements, advocate for accommodations, and adjust their family’s and child’s lives to make school work. Meanwhile, many children suffer dire consequences of being in a system that is not meeting their needs. Children’s lives have been severely impacted, and worse, lost, while we wait for the system to recognise that it is not the children that need to change, nor to be ‘fixed’. These children are not flawed.

The effects of School Can’t on children and their families were, in many cases, severe. Almost every family experienced family stress and worsening of the child’s anxiety and ability to cope with everyday life. Financial effects, effects on the family unit, and on the child’s friendships were also significant. There were cases of suicide ideation or attempts, marriage breakdown, declining mental health for all family members, social isolation, developmental regression and more. Children with a disability are overrepresented (80%) in the School Can’t cohort. The implications for possible discrimination in the right to access quality education against children with disabilities is clear.

The decision to home educate is affected by many factors, including the large financial impact of home education, as well as the caregiver’s confidence in their own abilities, knowledge about home education, support from their partner, family, friends and professionals, knowledge and ability to access supports, and concern about the myths that surround home education. There is also the very real problem of carer burnout from months or years of managing the impacts of School Can’t, and their subsequent inability to have the energy and the time to pursue information about home education, and then pursue registration. Almost two-thirds of parents who were now home educating their children first found out about home education from their own research. The professionals who could be providing information, support, and alternate options to sending children with School Can’t to school, are not presenting home education as a viable option. There are significant barriers to people commencing home education, including finances, misinformation and lack of information, lack of support and lack of self-belief.

Financial impacts on families due to the decision to home educate are large. Approximately 90% of families report an impact, with about 70% reporting a moderate to high financial impact. Research in 2022 showed that in addition to the extra costs that must be covered by families, the majority suffer an additional loss of income, in most cases well over $30,000 per annum, and in at least one-third of families in excess of $50,000. The financial stress on many home-educating families is real.

Our survey data demonstrated that home education can have overwhelmingly positive effects (Figure 1), with improvements in mental health, emotional regulation, interest in learning, confidence, relationships and engagement. The words ‘life saving’ and ‘life changing’ were used frequently by survey respondents. However, parents and caregivers who choose to home educate are frequently unsupported, and had to find their own way there. Friends, family and professionals could be supportive, but they could also present opposition and were often misinformed about what home education is, and what it isn’t.

The importance of connecting new home educating families to the existing home education community cannot be overstated. This is evident in the survey responses. The sooner that the family connects with their local and wider home education community, the sooner the parents feel supported, and, when children are ready, they can begin to form friendships, take part in excursions and camps, renew their enthusiasm for learning, and re-engage with their education. Those who reported a large decline in friendships were generally those whose children had been hospitalised before commencing home education, who reported greatly increased anxiety when at school, and those who had been home educating for less than two years. Although the number of friendships may have declined, the quality of friendships that remained or were made after commencing home education were deeper and more meaningful.

Our survey shows something that the long-time home-education community has long recognised: the benefits of home education take time to fall into place, and when they happen they are overwhelmingly positive. The most consistent improvement is in mental health, and this cannot be emphasised enough. In a time when ‘mental health’ is the catch cry of professionals, politicians and media everywhere, this is significant. Children with School Can’t generally need time to heal, and time to rediscover their love of learning. Time for deschooling during the transition from school to home education is vital for many children who are traumatised by anything that is reminiscent of school. It also takes time for families to form connections within their local and wider home education community, and this greatly influences the successful development of friendships and support networks.

When children leave school with significant trauma and anxiety from School Can’t, it often takes one and a half to two years or more to experience the benefits of home education, especially in the areas of friendships, willingness to try new things, and their ability to engage in the wider community. It is also clear that engaging with the wider home education community greatly assists the transition for children with School Can’t, and greatly enhances their experience and benefits of home education.

There were many other great and significant improvements in children’s and families’ lives since commencing home education. Many centre around mental health (including no longer being suicidal, anxiety reduced or gone, PTSD effects reduced, signs of OCD reduced); having a better understanding of themselves and their needs; better sleep; better physical health; eating better; getting their sparkle/vibrancy back; becoming more social and wanting to interact with friends again; being excited about their education; feeling safer; starting to trust people again; being able to reduce or remove medications; better self-esteem and self-confidence; being calmer and more relaxed; and taking greater responsibility for themselves and their learning.

The improvements in interest, engagement and educational attainment in children with School Can’t once they began home education were marked (Figures 2, 3, 4 and 5). It is important to note that the length of home education has a large effect on these improvements, and this is unsurprising, given that many of the children with School Can’t who come out of school are often traumatised, in a state of chronic stress, and need time to decompress and deschool before engaging with learning once more.












It was also clear from the results of the surveys that the earlier children commence home education after starting to experience School Can’t, the earlier the improvements start to be seen.

Children with School Can’t who had been home educated but returned to mainstream education did so on average in less time than is generally understood it takes to become familiar with home education and find what works for the individual child and the family. Despite this, children still experienced improvements in engagement, interest and attainment that were often maintained to some degree during their return to school. However, this return to school was frequently fraught with the return of School Can’t, a decline in enthusiasm and attainment, and an inability to attend as much as planned, despite the will of everyone to make it work. Often, it resulted in a return to home education, and an improvement in the wellbeing and attainment of the child once more. It is abundantly clear that those children who enter the home education community and are connected into local groups fare better socially, emotionally and academically than those who are not connected in some way. 

Social and emotional learning was an area that we added to the survey to assess how well it was attained by children at school and when home educated. It is an area that is often the subject of myths about home education, and an area of concern for parents who are considering home education. The survey results clearly indicate that social and emotional learning is greatly enhanced by the commencement of home education. These are skills that are crucial to managing emotions, setting and achieving goals, establishing positive relationships, and making responsible decisions, and are thus vital to educational attainment. They are also associated with better job prospects and improved overall lifelong well-being, and effective communication and collaboration.

The improvements children experience in social and emotional learning while home educating may explain why the improvements gained in educational attainment while home educating carry forward to some degree when children return to school.

The survey results also suggest that children with disabilities and additional needs who are well-supported through home education, and have the time to develop social and emotional skills, are able to engage in more advanced course-work, paid work and further study.

It is also clear that home educated children with School Can’t are well able to engage in the community, use their initiative to establish their own businesses, take charge of their education and find pathways that utilise their strengths to achieve independence and contribute meaningfully to society.

Families who have experienced School Can’t and subsequently embraced home education for their children demonstrate profound improvements in overall wellbeing and attainment for those children, including academic, social and emotional wellness, and future prospects.

Home education allows children to rediscover their love of learning, to find what works for them and how they want to direct their own learning. Autonomy is a wonderful, empowering experience. They can pursue their interests, in a calm, relaxed environment, make connections with other families in the home education community, and interact at a level that suits them. This leads to positive outcomes, and their education trajectory can return to a path that leads to a fulfilling, productive and engaged life.

The surveys gave parents the opportunity to share more of their story, and many were uplifting, gut wrenching, and tear inducing in turn. We included every single one in the submission appendices, which can be accessed on the Senate Inquiry page and through our website under ‘Advocacy – School Can’t’. The overwhelming feedback from parents in the groups we interacted with was one of gratitude and relief. Many said it was the first time they really felt heard. We hope we have done justice to them and their stories.

The Senate Committee’s report was disappointing, but unsurprising. Home education did not garner much of a mention, and when it did, it was in passing and much of the information was taken out of context or omitted. The overwhelming positives were ignored, and our recommendation that home education be supported as a viable alternative to mainstream education, given the paucity of places available in alternate settings, was not mentioned.

In the future, we are hoping to discuss the data with State Ministers, in order to advocate for home-educated young people and their families, as well as those who are living with School Can’t and are experiencing barriers to commencing home education.

Otherways 178 Nov 2023

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