The Guardian: ‘No One Really Knows’: Senate Inquiry Into School Refusal Told First Step is to Track ‘Invisible’ Students

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‘No one really knows’: Senate inquiry into school refusal told first step is to track ‘invisible’ students


Thousands of children don’t attend school and no one knows for sure why. One solution could be issuing national student numbers

The reasons why children experience difficulties attending school can be related to learning difficulties, social anxiety, mental health issues, family problems or bullying. Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP

As education departments and experts fronted up to two days of public hearings this week for the Senate inquiry into the “national trend of school refusal”, one fundamental fact was repeated again and again – nobody can say with any certainty how widespread the problem is or exactly why it seems to be getting worse.

Julie Birmingham, the acting deputy secretary of schools in the federal education department, told the inquiry that it is “probably the key problem we have here – there’s a real lack of data to understand the scale and scope of the problem.”

“We certainly know that attendance has been declining for quite a number of years and particularly through the Covid period,” Birmingham said. “There’s also data like attainment rates and retention rates… All of those things point in a direction but by themselves don’t give you the reasons why people aren’t turning up to school.

Last October the Senate’s education committee announced it would open an inquiry into the emerging trend of “school refusal” – when children or adolescents experience significant distress at the prospect of going to school, a phenomenon widely believed to be on the rise since the pandemic.

Megan O’Connell, an honorary senior fellow at Melbourne University’s graduate school of education, told Guardian Australia last September that data “points to nearly 100,000 children not in education and many more only tangentially attached and not attending regularly”, but many experts throughout this week’s inquiry reiterated how difficult it is to determine the true number.

“I’m confident that no one really knows,” the Missing School chief executive, Megan Gilmour, told the inquiry.


Collecting data the first step

Currently, when parents and carers formally register their child’s absence with their school, the only categories they are able to select are “parent choice”, “medical” or “truancy”. Students leaving school early or completing shorter days aren’t captured.

“We know more children aren’t attending school and we know that more children have anxiety and depression, so we could hypothesise and suggest [that the absences] are not because of cold and flu symptoms or Covid, but right now we don’t know,” Prof Jennie Hudson, the director of research at the Black Dog Institute, told the inquiry.

“It’s impossible to see them and quantify the impacts if the data isn’t disaggregating those students from the fuller student population,” said Gilmour. She called for a set of national absence codes so that schools and systems can understand the true nature and extent of the issue.

Gilmour suggested there is legislation and several policy levers in place that could be used but “the invisibility of these students is blocking capacity that we already have and funding pools that we already have” that could be unlocked.

Prof Jim Watterston, the dean of the Melbourne graduate school of education, told the inquiry that the nature of Australia’s education system, segregated across eight states and territories, means that sharing data with the commonwealth is extremely challenging.

Watterston and various experts and submissions to the inquiry advocated for a national unique student identifier (USI). Similar to the ID issued to tertiary students, the concept was first agreed upon by Coag in 2009 but has yet to be rolled out.

The Victorian government’s submission to the inquiry highlighted the VSN (the Victorian student number) as a way of being able to track students through different educational institutions and said a national USI would help complement that system. It is also a recommendation of the Queensland Catholic Education Commission: “A unique student identifier may assist with alerting school authorities when a young person is no longer enrolled or attending school and act as a prompt to follow up and provide the necessary supports to assist the young person’s wellbeing and re-engagement with learning.”

Birmingham flagged that the process of developing the next national school reform agreement (the current one expires in December this year) will offer opportunity to explore what can be done with states and territories to improve the data.


A mental health problem or an issue in the system?

But a USI alone will not tell policymakers why many students can’t make it to school.

The reasons why children experience difficulties attending are complex and can be related to learning difficulties, social anxiety, mental health issues, family problems or negative school experiences like bullying.

However, while many submissions and witnesses to the inquiry put the blame squarely on mental health of students, other witnesses, some visibly emotional at times, told the inquiry that the institution of school itself is simply not designed properly to meet the growing needs of many students, including but not limited to a growing cohort of neurodiverse students.

Helen Connolly, the South Australian commissioner for children and young people, wrote in her submission: “Rather than expecting and requiring children to adapt to a school system that is not consistently able, equipped or willing to respond to their needs, changes are needed at a systemic level to ensure education systems and other systems across Australia are meeting the needs of all children and young people.”

The Australian Council of State School Organisations (Acsso) wrote: “How willing are we to acknowledge that our schools, both their structures and cultures, have a history of, and may still in many ways be unsupportive to many young people, their families, and communities?”

Greater flexibility to cater to children individually, hybrid models of online learning and more meaningful parent engagement by the school were consistently cited by witnesses as crucial levers to pull – and indeed some independent schools already reported moving to or contemplating hybrid learning for struggling students. All expressed sympathy for overworked teachers and repeatedly referred to a “resourcing issue”.

Greens senator and committee member Penny Allman-Payne, a former teacher of 30 years’ experience, said it was clear the phenomenon of “school can’t” – a term many preferred to “school refusal” – stretched much further than the school gate and needed policies that worked across both health and education.

“It really takes a multidisciplinary approach to address the problem with school can’t – teachers and schools can’t solve it on their own.”

People don’t understand “this level of fear”, said Hudson. They don’t understand “what it’s like for this young person”.

“Once we have safety and comfort, then learning will take place,” Dianne Giblin, the Acsso chief executive, told the inquiry: “If they’re not ready to learn, or well enough in body and mind, nothing else will happen: the Atar won’t happen, the Naplan won’t happen.

“We need to look after them first.”


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