Monday 4 September 2023

September. Back To School.. for some.

September. I have a love-hate relationship with this month. The weather is often lovely; less hot than full-on summer days (ha, although we had none of those here in the UK over this summer anyway!). But September carries with it those three little words that mean so much to many families: Back to School.

There will be some families who are exhausted from full days and nights of caring for their children, having to provide non-stop focus or entertainment for them. For those parents and carers, the return to school will be a welcome relief. For others, school anxiety may have kicked in a few days or nights ago, with children agonising over what they are going to wear (sensory issues when younger but then for style reasons when older, not wanting to look different or stand out), what the new teacher will be like, whether they will understand or be able to sit through the lessons, how much homework there is going to be or whether they are going to make any friends this year. And then there are the ones for whom there is no Back to School. The anxiety becomes too all-consuming, and the child feels unable to leave the house at all. Or else there is no school to go to, at all, nowhere suitable for that child's needs. The parents are stuck at home with the child, wondering how, or if, they will ever be able to return to work, sending email after email, battling a system that not only doesn't provide but instead often harrasses and causes extra stress.

Some families choose to educate their child at home; some end up having to do this but not through choice. Back to School can evoke feelings for these families too, when it feels like the vast majority of other children are skipping off happily to school.

image shows handwriting on a postcard; words in post text

The picture I'm sharing today is of a postcard written nine years ago by me, dictated by my PDAer who was aged just seven at the time. The children were all asked to send a postcard back to their new teacher at the Junior School over the summer holidays, presumably so that on return to school, they could talk in class about the different places that have been visited, or activities taken part in.

That was back at a time when our daughter would still travel on holiday with us, so I didn't think finding something to write about would be a difficult task. She refused to write on it herself, but was keen to dictate to me what I should write. I made suggestions along the lines of where we had been and what she had done, making sandcastles on the beach, swimming, bouncy trampolines etc, but she was adamant she did not want any of that on her postcard.

She insisted that I write the following: "Dear Mrs. X, I'll always be quiet at school and when you need me to do some work I'll try my best". When I tried to suggest writing something different, explaining why school wanted the postcard, she became quite upset and wouldn't let me write anything other than what she dictated.

All through the summer holidays she had told us she would behave like a big girl when she started Junior School. She had mentioned the 'being quiet' bit fairly frequently but we didn't think that was her biggest issue at school. Our understanding was that she would usually withdraw to the back of the class and do her own thing, rather than making noise and disrupting others. She used to tell me that it was the other children who did the 'chitter-chattering' - and I often wondered if she told them off for that! School was never easy for our girl, despite it being a great school with very understanding and supportive staff.

Today I wanted to send some extra virtual strength to all the parents whose children are struggling to go to school this week. It's tough, and you need to be kind to yourselves at this time. I think it helps to know you are not alone - seek out other families having difficulties with this because feeling like you are surrounded by parents with children enjoying their school experience can make you feel like you are the only one not doing it right, somehow. But that's not the true picture. 

The system does not work for every child. I'm going to be restarting the Not Fine In School series this week, where other families write about their difficult experiences and share what has or hasn't worked for them. I think it is so important that we keep talking about education as a whole, keep highlighting where the issues are and keep pushing for a better system that includes ALL children. If you think you could write something for this series, please email me at

Short extracts from previous posts in this series are below - for the full posts please click the links:

Week 1 of Not Fine In School

"My daughter said school felt like prison.  She felt six hours a day of constant concentration was too much – it literally frazzled her brain.  Since deregistering our daughter her daily headaches have disappeared.  She sleeps better as she isn’t worrying about the next day."

Week 2 of Not Fine In School

"We have been incredibly lucky with the primary school she was at. They supported her as best they could, accommodating her needs as far as possible and being flexible with her school attendance. Even so, she found the whole experience overwhelming and ultimately it impacted on her life in significantly negative ways.

Just 48 hours into Year 7 our home education journey began, not unexpectedly!

“Keep pushing her until she has a breakdown. We need to see it happen.” 

Those are the words our SEN caseworker said to me when I told her my daughter's secondary school placement was unsuitable."

Week 3 of Not Fine In School

"At the beginning of Year 6 he started to school refuse and had a high level of separation anxiety. Over the next three months we struggled.  I made him go to school, sat in school with him for hours, came back at set times to show him that I would come back, but nothing helped.  His behaviour was very volatile and the school were struggling to cope. When I woke him up in the morning his first words were “I'm not going”. He would refuse to get up, or get dressed, would be very tearful and plead with me not to take him. I dreaded every morning as he did."

Week 4 of Not Fine In School

"She was given detentions and was sanctioned because of her attendance.  I always complained and they stopped it but in every incident, more damage was done.  She went to 70% attendance.  I reapplied to CAMHS for crisis intervention as she was depressed and talking about not wanting to exist anymore.  In December 2020 we were given medical intervention and I pulled her out of school.  She is now in Year 9 and school have arranged for her to be on a part-time timetable."

Week 5 of Not Fine In School - Eliza Fricker, Missing The Mark

"As families we have explored everything to help our children to manage to go to school and yet the pressure and the anxiety of the school day are overwhelming for them.

This leads to enormous guilt on our part as we have failed to achieve one of the most basic parenting exercises- to get our children to school (we are also appalling at any textbook bedtimes too, in case you need to know).

So we live for many years as parents, as mothers, as women, feeling the guilt and judgement that we have failed. 

We lose friendships and family who struggle to understand, our relationships become consumed by this, our careers often end, as we cannot manage it all."

Week 6 of Not Fine In School

"I was on a knife-edge the entire time he was at primary school, waiting to get that call to come and calm him down (the perils of being a freelancer, working from home) or for the teacher to beckon me over at pick-up time to talk about the latest ‘incident’. 

The school told me outright that he wouldn’t get an EHCP and that I could apply on my own, but it probably wasn’t worth it. Undeterred, I sought the help of a professional who could help me navigate the difficult system." 

Week 7 of Not Fine In School

"As I said before, the SENCO at his current school is doing the best she can. But my son has been struggling in mainstream school since last September, to the point that he has already been temporarily excluded twice, and has only been in for a couple of hours a day since they went back in March. He has regressed against all his EHCP outcomes, and is spending what short time he is in school separated from the other children (too many aggressive meltdowns when with the class) - just him and 1 or 2 teachers in a room, doing their best to keep him happy and calm while he plays. Any attempt to bring in some sort of learning, even well-disguised, triggers his anxiety. So he’s getting no benefit, educational or social, from being there."

Week 8 of Not Fine In School

"I had been warning both the school and the local authority since the beginning of the year, about my daughters school anxiety, the sheer amount of effort, it was taking to get her to school was exhausting for both of us; and seeing her freeze at the school gate and beg not to go in was heart-wrenching for me, but I felt blamed by the school as if it was my fault, because she has a typical female presentation of autism, and an all too familiar story, where she masked in school and let it all out at home with Violent and Challenging Behaviour (VCB) in her safe space- the classic Jekyll and Hyde presentation.

When she was first awarded her EHCP a year ago, I wanted a specialist placement for her then, but her mainstream primary was named. I was told then by the Local Authority that she would have to “fail” at mainstream before they would even consider a special school placement for her."

Week 9 of Not Fine In School

"My son is nearly 10 years old and is a shadow of the boy he used to be. It breaks my heart just thinking about it. He started in a small village school at 4 years old. His older sister also attended and loved it. We started noticing he was having difficulties with other children that same year and was falling out with them on a daily basis. I was called in a few times to speak to his teacher about incidents that had happened but it was just out down to “bad choices” and, because he is so bright, they just shrugged it off and said he would grow out of it. 

He carried on like this for a couple of years until he started in year 2 and the cracks started to show even more. I would struggle to get him out the car to go into class. He would jump away from the door as I opened it and sometimes climb into the boot and hide. The head teacher would sometimes come over and talk to him to convince him to come into school. Whenever this happened, he would instantly put on his mask and go with her but plead with me with his eyes. I spoke to his teacher about it but he just shrugged and said “he’s fine in school”. "

Week 10 of Not Fine In School

"From the very first full day at school our daughter struggled. She vomited every lunchtime pretty much as soon as the bell went; we were never sure if it was the bell or the thought of the dinner hall that terrified her. Very quickly she was vomiting before school and getting extremely distressed about going, clinging to me in the playground and screaming. It was awful.

Then one day after I left her at school she escaped and tried to follow me. She got out of the school grounds and into the road. Luckily a childminder we knew was standing on the pavement chatting and she grabbed her and phoned me. I wish I had taken her home that day and never taken her back but I did what society expects us to do; I returned her to school."

Week 11 of Not Fine In School

"The problem here, is that school still followed the reward, consequence method so the inconsistencies weren’t helping him at all. He managed to scrape his way through the reception year without too many major issues, other than the odd school fight. I was the mum who’d get called over to chat to the teacher at the end of the day. I loathed this, as I could see my son squirming next to the teacher as they talked about him making ‘poor choices’. His response upon leaving school was often ‘flight’, he loved the freedom from being outside of the school gates, and I was the crazed mum weaving in and out of other parents chasing him down the road. I mostly succeeded in suppressing the inevitable eruption and he saved meltdowns for the safety of home."

Week 12 of Not Fine In School

"After a long fight to see the paediatrician, our son was diagnosed with Autism (PDA profile) at the age of six. School put in strategies based on this diagnosis but it still wasn’t enough. We applied for an EHCP and during that assessment the Educational Psychologist advised a specialist setting, so we began our search for a special education school. However, as our son is a bright boy, specialist schools told us they could not meet his needs as he was not behind academically. So we were stuck between a rock and a hard place - mainstream schools couldn’t meet his needs and special schools were saying they couldn’t meet his needs. It was such a hard time in our lives, feeling our son just didn’t belong anywhere academically. We were so shocked by the lack of educational provision available." 

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