Provision for pupils who are regarded as school phobics  

Tamsin Archer, Caroline Filmer-Sankey and Felicity Fletcher-Campbell


The statutory requirement for schools to publish attendance figures and record non-authorised absence has made them increasingly aware of the range of reasons for poor attendance. Among those who do not attend regularly or at all, there may be pupils labelled as school refusers or school phobics who exhibit symptoms of stress or anxiety about attending school. While there is psychological literature on the causes of school refusal or phobia within the child, there has been little educational literature on factors at school that might cause the problem and also little research into the strategies that can be adopted by LEAs and schools to support such pupils.

The aim of this study was to increase knowledge about, and understanding of, pupils identified as school refusers or school phobics, in order to enhance professionals' approaches to support them. The specific areas of investigation were: identification and assessment, causes of school refusal and phobia, provision for pupils affected, and training and monitoring structures.

Key findings

Definitions and profiles of pupils identified as school refusers and phobics
The research revealed no clear definitions of school refusers and school phobics among practitioners in LEAs and schools. The terms used to describe such pupils included: pupils with acute anxiety about attending school; pupils who cannot face school; and pupils who persistently refuse to attend. There was some overlap in terms but, generally, school phobics were perceived as those with anxieties (rational or irrational) about attending school, and school refusers were perceived as those who chose not to attend for whatever reason.

Owing to the difficulties in definition, it was not possible to quantify numbers of pupils with school refusal or phobia in the schools surveyed. The evidence suggested, however, that more pupils were identified with attendance problems in the higher key stages, and in schools where there was provision to support them, in the form of a separate unit or a member of staff with specific responsibility for school refusal and phobia. The main causes of the problem at school appeared to be social anxiety, change of pupil groupings and fear of the school environment. The respondents generally felt, however, that, while school factors such as these could trigger school refusal or phobia, the origins of the problem usually lay in the home.

Response to identified difficulties and strategies for support
After initial identification of attendance problems from the attendance registers, school pastoral staff and education welfare officers investigated the reasons for poor attendance. At this stage specific problems of school refusal or phobia would be identified. The application of discrete strategies to help identified pupils was determined by analysis of individual need, usually undertaken by discussion with all those involved and outside agencies as appropriate. Schools' responses to a pupil's difficulties, and the extent and nature of the support provided, were dependent on the provision available within and outside school. However, strategies adopted and the sequence of support was fairly uniform across the schools in the sample.

Measures to prevent the problem and strategies for supporting identified pupils were similar. They included: early action on non-attendance, extensive pastoral consultation within the school, support at school from another pupil or adult, provision of a 'safe' environment in school, and whole school behaviour and anti-bullying policies. Gradual reintegration was favoured and among the approaches adopted were part-time timetables and extra support in class. In schools where there was a separate support unit or a designated member of staff responsible for school refusers and phobics, respondents considered that their focused support was effective in encouraging pupils' reintegration.

Training issues and monitoring structures
Schools had received very little training on issues related to school refusal and phobia; any training mentioned was within the framework of school attendance generally.

Monitoring of the progress of school refusers and phobics, and resultant action, was dependent on the size of the school, the availability and interest of staff, and pastoral structures. In schools with a separate unit staff were able to monitor pupils more closely because they were in daily contact and able to establish a closer relationship with them.


As reported above, the research revealed that there were no clear definitions of school refusal and phobia, though there was a common understanding of the kinds of profiles that pupils labelled as such might present. It was difficult, therefore, to quantify the numbers of pupils affected, though in the project sample more school refusers and phobics had been identified in the higher key stages. Support strategies adopted were similar for prevention and reintegration, they were tailored to individual need and determined by the situation in the school, for example, availability of staff and pastoral structures. The report presents the full findings from this research and also suggests a number of questions for LEAs and schools to consider, in relation to the support they provide for pupils regarded as school refusers or phobics.

About the study

The study was carried out in the academic year 2002/2003. There were three strands to the research. The first involved a questionnaire survey to all local education authorities in England. A total of 60 LEAs returned the questionnaire. The second strand involved a questionnaire survey to 600 schools in England, including primary, secondary, and special schools, and pupil referral units. A total of 280 schools returned questionnaires, of which only 48 schools distinguished school refusers or phobics from other non-attenders. The third strand involved case studies in 16 schools where school refusers or school phobics had been identified. Interviews were conducted with a range of school staff, LEA representatives, professionals from other agencies, and with a number of pupils identified as school refusers or phobics and their parents or carers. Data collected were analysed quantitatively and qualitatively.

Citation of full report

ARCHER, T., FILMER-SANKEY, C. and FLETCHER-CAMPBELL, F. (2003). School Phobia and School Refusal: Research into Causes and Remedies (LGA Research Report 46). Slough: NFER.


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