Senate to investigate growing trend of ‘school refusal’ after Covid pandemic classroom disruptions

The Senate will investigate the emerging trend of “school refusal” – a phenomenon experts say is linked to distress or separation anxiety and is on the rise since the lockdowns and classroom closures of the Covid pandemic.

The announcement follows recent reporting by the Guardian on the trend, which has been identified by mental health organisations and education advocates as a deep reluctance to attend class.

A subject of concern for youth mental health organisations such as ReachOut and Headspace, the issue will be investigated by parliament’s education committee after the Senate backed a motion from the Greens schools spokesperson, Senator Penny Allman-Payne.

“It’s distinct from truancy, and much deeper than that,” said Allman-Payne.

“Many children experience genuine and severe emotional distress when they’re required to attend school and will refuse to go, a phenomenon on the rise since the Covid pandemic.”

Megan O’Connell, honorary senior fellow at the Melbourne graduate school of education, told Guardian Australia last month that data “points to nearly 100,000 children not in education and many more only tangentially attached and not attending regularly”.

Organisations such as ReachOut and Headspace have published resources for parents.

“School refusal is different to ‘wagging’ or ‘jigging’ because it stems from a teen’s anxiety about school,” ReachOut said on its website. “They might be worried about their school work, interacting with other kids, dealing with teachers, playing sports or being away from their family.”

Headspace said a number of underlying factors could be at play including anxiety, household problems like parents’ separation, transitioning from primary to secondary school, or bullying.

“Young people might appear to be feeling ill or unhappy the morning before school with a desire to stay home,” the youth mental health organisation’s website stated. “They might have an emotional reaction at the idea of leaving for school in the morning.”

Payne’s motion, which was supported by the Senate, called on the education and employment references committee to investigate “the national trend of school refusal or ‘School Can’t’ – as distinct from truancy – that is affecting primary and secondary school-age children, who are unable to attend school regularly or on a consistent basis”.

The committee will look into the increasing rate of school refusal since the pandemic, how the trend is affecting students and their families, the increasing load on schools and service providers supporting those students, and how state and federal departments are addressing “this growing school refusal challenge”.

The committee will report back in March 2023.

“School refusal is a growing problem for many school-age children who are unable to attend school due to extreme mental distress, neurodivergence, or other factors,” Allman-Payne said.

“This has dramatic impacts on not only the education and wellbeing of these children, but also on the families and carers whose lives are often turned upside down.”

Allman-Payne encouraged all affected parents or carers to make submissions to the inquiry.

The committee chair, Matt O’Sullivan, and the deputy chair, Tony Sheldon, were contacted for comment.

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