Subsidised student mental health care visits could help tackle national school refusal issues

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

A proposal to offer subsidised student mental health care visits to help tackle school attendance issues is just one recommendation of a recent Senate inquiry into the growing national problem.

The inquiry was initiated by the Greens last October, who welcomed the findings from the Senate’s report released last Thursday as a “positive first step”. They urged the federal government to begin implementing its recommendations about managing school refusal issues by working with states and territories.

“School refusal”, also known as “school can’t”, or “school phobia” refers to school students having difficulty attending school regularly, for a variety of reasons. Since the impact of COVID-19 lockdowns, the problem has grown substantially, with committee members noting a significant proportion of children actively refusing to attend school are neurodivergent.

The national trend of school refusal impacts schools and families across the nation, with one peer support group doubling in size each year, as parents and carers search for solutions to help their children complete their education.

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In a recent media report, data pointed to almost 100,000 Australian children currently not in education, with many more engaging in irregular attendance. According to many experts, though, determining the accurate figure is difficult.

The 170 submissions to the inquiry demonstrate the extent of the crisis, says School Can’t Australia. The support group for parents and primary carers whose children have difficulty attending school welcomed the recommendation of funding for parent peer support.

The report made 14 recommendations aimed at helping children attend and remain in school, including a fully funded parent peer support network and an expansion of subsidised student mental health visits. Improving child health screening for early intervention, as well as incorporating school refusal training in teacher education and improving trauma-informed practices in schools, may also make a positive difference.

Parent and carer support groups are growing as families seek answers

With no data to detail the specific reasons, exactly why so many students are now shying away from education is still unclear. What is certain, though, is that attendance rates across the nation have dropped – and have been trending that way before COVID-19.

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Between 2021 and 2022, the committee reported the national attendance rate dropped from 91 per cent to 86.5 per cent, and the attendance level fell from 71 per cent to just 50 per cent.

The committee recommended that providing greater flexibility flexibility of education delivery, including creating more alternative and specialist school settings that cater for students experiencing school refusal should be explored by independent and government schools across Australia, with a call for state and territory education ministers to develop a national action plan.

“Prioritising student wellbeing starts with prioritising teacher wellbeing,” School Can’t Australia said, welcoming the recommendation for a wholistic approach.

“That means we need to resource and equip schools to respond to school can’t in ways that prioritise wellbeing, including encouraging collaboration with students and their families to identify and reduce stressors within the school environment.

“Our vision is that our children’s needs will be better understood and identified early, so that support is provided before they reach crisis point, and that parents and their children no longer feel judgment and shame due to school can’t.”

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“Families in our community report significant stress accessing appropriate supports for their children and themselves. It affects their physical health, mental health and financial well-being.”

To help deal with the issue, the group says that understanding that the students turning away from school are doing it because of extensive stressors, rather than misbehaviour, is vital.

“We need to resource and equip schools to respond in ways that prioritise well-being,” it said. “So that support is provided before they reach crisis point.”

School refusal numbers continue to rise

The Australian Secondary Principals’ Association (ASPA) said there was no doubt school refusal numbers had risen, with students risking further disengagement and non-completion rates.

For year seven and eight students, the rate who remain in school full-time to complete year 12 was 80.5 per cent in 2022 – down from 83.1 per cent in 2021. In public schools across Australia, the rate is even lower, at just 76 per cent.

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“Over the years we have seen a significant trend in the number of students unable to attend school due to high levels of anxiety and mental health issues,” ASPA’s submission stated.

“This trend was amplified during and post-COVID-19 and is happening at an alarming rate.”

And without the adequate resources or time to dedicate to the current post-pandemic recovery phase, the submission said, many families are left struggling to access much-needed interventions.

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]brandx.live