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June 25, 2021

Mandy Nolan’s Soapbox: When Schools Refuse to Change

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Mandy Nolan’s Soapbox: Photo courtesy of Museums Victoria 

Most parents know the challenge of school refusal. That’s when your kid refuses to go to school. It’s so common it’s become a clinical descriptor used in child psychiatry research and clinical practice. I’ve certainly had to deal with it. One of my kids I only ever managed to get to high school on three out of five days. She stopped going completely in year 11.

Every morning it was on – this battle between the two of us. Her, with a sense of dread and anxiety about turning up when she was disengaged from her work and had no sense of purpose or meaning in anything she did there. Me, with my sense of parental failure and a system that told me I had to send my unhappy child to school. Those mornings were awful. We were both in tears. I so wanted her to enjoy her schooling. I didn’t want it to be torture. But it was. Every day she went she felt worse about herself – it confirmed her deep fear that she wasn’t smart, that there was no place for her, and that she would be found out. I was desperate. I begged the school for support to entice her back, or to instil her with some self-belief. It was a good school. But there wasn’t anything they could offer except regular classes. It seems the system is unbending. It doesn’t acknowledge the many kids who find school meaningless and uninspiring. These kids are seen as poor learners. But are they? Or are they just our forgotten learners?

I know so many parents with kids who won’t go to school. The parents are called into the office and are reminded of the legal requirement to send their kids to school. School refusal has been pathologised as a problem with our kids. It’s their issue. But I beg to differ. I think school refusal is symptomatic of the fact that schools need to change. Perhaps the real culprit, when it comes to school refusal, is not the kids, but the schools themselves. School refusal is the school’s problem. Maybe it’s time our school system had a massive overhaul.

Let’s be honest, it’s a system that many kids find uninspiring and impersonal. It’s often a place where kids face bullying. Many kids don’t feel safe. It’s a place to mark time. I am sure teachers would appreciate an education overhaul as well. It can’t be easy having to deliver robotic curriculum outcomes. The mass ‘factory approach’ of our schooling hasn’t been changed much in 200 years. It’s an industrial model that needs to be reimagined.

School refusal has tripled since the national COVID-19 lockdown. During covid some kids thrived with home learning. It meant they didn’t have the daily anxiety of dealing with bullies or harassment. Why aren’t kids offered more home learning options? What would a more personalised schooling program look like? Why can’t we work to each young person’s strengths and abilities, rather than celebrating a system that amplifies their deficits?

What would a student-led curriculum look like? I know, it’s a radical idea to let the learner lead the learning. We could also stop measuring our young people and find new ways to foster and promote learning outcomes. We could take our kids out of the classroom and into nature. We could teach our kids life skills, like growing food, and cooking, saving water, making fire, and reducing waste. We could teach them about the ocean and the forests, about the stars and the sky. We could put down books and listen to the stories of First Nations learning. We could hear stories from other cultures. We could make learning an immersive adventure.

Schools could become community learning hubs rather than giant cerebral supermarkets for growing brains. What if we created a system that fed and nourished our young, rather than shaming and penalising them? Maybe it’s time to stop school refusal at the heart of the problem. Not with our kids, but with the schools.

Perhaps we will never address bullying in our schools when the brutality lies in the very system itself.

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  1. This system does exist and it thrives. The Special Education sector in Queensland had a bit of a problem in that we never ever experienced school refusal among our students. The reason was that every student with a disability was educated via an individual education plan that had explicit outcomes tailored to the student’s abilities. No matter who you were, you were welcome and we tailored your learning experiences to you as well as we could.

    We – teachers in special education – dovetailed special education units into schools and worked with the rigid system to try to achieve mainstream inclusion for most students. Those students whose disabilities were impossibly severe attended special schools built for that purpose. I’ve been retired for a while but the idea is still the same.

    The fact remains that the education system has a major problem; pretty much everyone went to school and everyone’s an expert. Add that to the fact that successive conservative governments only want to fund private schools and having a well educated population means more scrutiny.

    And they don’t want that! Just ask the NSW and Federal cabinets.

  2. As a graduate teacher I couldn’t agree more. There are so many other options than conventional schooling these days that you can consider. Steiner schools, community schools, homeschooling ,unschooling…
    Our current school systems need to shift the emphasis from competition, assessing and navigating a crammed curriculum back to what really matters😩

  3. As a mum of 4 boys which 2 didn’t fit the schooling system , YES I totally agree with Mandy , it’s time for change. Not all children are academically inclined . Forcing children into school is like forcing large round pegs into small square holes , they don’t fit and never will, without cutting them down and leaving little pieces of them discarded on the schoolroom floor.
    Gonski was a huge let down unfortunately, for our children, teachers and parents . Basically is the same old grind with the same old outcomes . Messed up children with the motivation to learn gone, they turn into disillusioned young adults . Time for an overhaul of our schooling system. Will change happen in the near future? I doubt it very much!!

  4. I couldn’t agree more with Mandy on “education” as currently practiced in our high schools. They seem to be geared as feedlots for the universities and those who leave school early find few apprenticeships offering, and TAFE courses and capacity to teach have been sadly reduced due to political mantras that say “privatisation will do it better and cheaper” and have starved TAFE of essential funding to cope with good ol’ nuts’n’bolts trade teaching. A new departure from the current schooling mode is badly needed.

  5. I’m a teacher and I agree mostly. However, any child is free to be homeschooled, the parents just need to do it. So the option is there. I’m homeschooling my kid in term 4.

  6. Unschooling is a fantastic and to some “radical” idea that I have come to embrace during 2020/21. Unschooling allows children the time and space to think for themselves in a safe and encouraging environment. They follow their own interests while dealing with the physical/emotional and physiological changes they are going through without peer pressure and societal pressure to conform. Most of us want our kids to grow into independant free thinkers and yet we send them through a system that ultimately teaches them that as children they dont know anything . A system where they are programmed to “do as you are told” and always ask for permission and never question authority.

  7. Agree 100%. One out of my four just didn’t fit the mould. He is talented, creative, articulate, clever, funny, and with an ever-expanding social conscience, but that is not because of school, it’s despite it.

  8. There is a fabulous alternative in our region; Living School in Lismore. Here the learning is personalised, integrated and purposeful. Project based learning and integrated year levels in the HS are occurring. One full day each week occurs Onland, with students immersed in the local environment and engaged in interacting with nature and their peers. Indigenous culture and learning the language and history of the local area is paramount. Student led learning is encouraged so our lovely young people feel active in the process. Living Academy is opening up in 2022 – a senior program across Years 11-13 where students can choose to study the HSC units alongside enterprise and individual projects that link them in with local artisans and the community, making the school an extension of the community. It is exciting, progressive and innovative. Students are not sitting in rows digesting subject based content and regurgitating it back in standardised testing, testing really only one type of learning – memory and recall. It’s bold and very different. Students can still obtain an HSC, although they can do so at the same time as starting university subjects online , making the transition to tertiary or vocational life more palatable and useful. The type of skills and capabilities needed to combat the ills of our time; climate change, the perils of social media technology and disconnection are developed and taught. Check it out! John Stewart is the Conductor/leader and his website illuminates the model. It is an independent school so is fee paying and it is a shame that we can’t revolutionise public education as well. Teachers in all schools are amazing individuals who are doing their very best in a system that is outdated and irrelevant for many, so bouquets to all educators in this shire, trying to make a difference for the students they care about. Katie Biggin


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