This post reviews Alan Thomas and Allison Wray, “School Refusal and Home Education” in Journal of Unschooling and Alternative Learning 7, no. 13 (2013).[Available Here]
Thomas, a well-known authority on home education in Britain and Visiting Fellow at the University of London Institute of Education, and Wray, graduate student at Cambridge University and mother of three children, two of whom had refused school, here present the results of a recent study of twenty-four children who had refused to attend school and whose families turned to home-based learning as an alternative. Noting that there is no reliable database either of home educators or of school refusers in the United Kingdom, Thomas and Wray used nation-wide home education newsletters to invite home educating families who had arrived at the practice after dealing with a school-refusal issue to fill out an online survey. Twenty families responded to the request, with a total of twenty-four children among them. Five of the families were selected for more in-depth interviews.
The paper consists largely of quotations from these twenty sources. It was found that the reasons children had “said ‘no’ to school” were varied: bullying by peers, poor treatment by school staff, an off-putting learning environment, loss or lack of friendships at school, and home factors. Some of the quotes here are very powerful, relating as they do some really ugly situations these children found themselves in, especially pertaining to bullying behavior by other children that was not adequately policed by school authorities.
Next the authors turn to symptoms of school refusal, again using copious quotations from their sources to illustrate. Symptoms range from distress, anxiety, bed wetting, and night terrors to withdrawal, depression, and suicide attempts. Again, given the subject matter, the quotations are quite arresting.
Next the authors quote from their sources about what happened when the students left school and began homeschooling. There were two kinds of response. The first kind found a near instantaneous cure of the problems children had been having. The other kind found that it took about a year for children to detox from the trauma of school and to settle into new, more healthy routines.
Finally Thomas and Wray provide quotations about what these children did in their home schools. What they find here will sound very familiar. Parents often started out nervously trying to imitate the formal school curriculum, but they gradually loosened up until the formal part of school took only an hour or two a day and the rest of the time was spent in independent learning, social activities, and other educative experiences more in tune with the child’s interests and needs. A few children and parents worried about loneliness, and some of the former school refusers eventually returned to school once they had regained psychic health.
Thomas and Wray conclude by noting that their sample is self-selecting, doubtlessly biased toward success stories since all of their informants were connected to home education support groups. They also acknowledge that they’re relying for the most part on the testimony of parents speaking for their children rather than on the children’s voices themselves. Nevertheless, they conclude that even with these limitations the data presented suggests that professionals in the United Kingdom should rethink their traditional opposition to home education as a viable option for students struggling with school refusal issues.
I fully agree that this study’s weak methodology makes it basically a series of anecdotes rather than rigorous social science. Furthermore, some basic demographic data even about these anecdotes would be nice. It’s hard to tell, but it seemed to me that many of the children being described by these parents are now fully grown. So it’s quite possible that what’s being related here in these often quite powerful stories are tales from 5, 10, or even 15 years ago. In the author blurbs it is noted that two of Allison Wray’s children have attended university. I wonder if some, perhaps many of the families whose stories are told in this article were friends of Ms. Wray’s from her years as an unschooling mom of two school refusers back when her children and theirs were younger?
It’s clear that Wray is a strong believer that home education is a great option for families whose children have struggled with school refusal. It worked well for her, and she’d like to ensure that other families have this option. Thomas likewise is a well-known advocate for home education who for over a decade has been publishing books and articles that have one foot in academia and the other in homeschooling advocacy and how-to. All of that is to say that this article is very readable and full of compelling stories, but one does wonder how objective a guide it is to the phenomenon of the home education of children with school refusal issues. At the very least we can say that it does amass several powerful anecdotes that together prove that several parents of such children at least believe that the choice they made to pull their children out of school and give them some time at home was a good one. Whether that is enough to convince school authorities in the U.K. to give home education another look as a viable treatment to school refusal I can’t say.