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  • Saskia Müller

I Was Not a “School Skiver”

Dear Good Morning Britain (and the government),

Following your news segment yesterday, I would like you to know that I was not a “school skiver”. 

I was a child traumatised by school and exhausted from the relentless panic attacks and anxiety it triggered. A child forced back into the same environment day after day, regardless of its effects. Not a school skiver.

I was a child hurting from the bright lights, loud noises and crowds, who had no choice about having to experience this pain every day. A child who was broken by my school experiences - the bullying, the fear and the anxiety. Not a school skiver.

I was a child burnt out from having to navigate school every day, despite my brain working differently. A child who was desperate to please and terrified of getting into trouble, and spent far too much time working myself up over this. Not a school skiver.

I was a child who started school, age three, with a huge love of learning. I could read and write before I’d even started. I was inquisitive and curious. Joyful. I was a child who, by age eleven, was self-harming just to get through the day.

You might think ‘Well we are not talking about you or those like you’ when discussing ‘school skivers’. But you are. 92.1% of those with school attendance difficulties are neurodivergent. 83.4% are autistic (Connolly et al. 2023). Your words target neurodivergent kids.

The (what feels like a relentless) attack on school attendance and school refusal directly targets neurodivergent children. And it is not that they ‘won’t’ go to school and ‘refuse’, it is that they CAN’T or are struggling due to their experiences (Wadlow, 2020). They are NOT “school skivers”.

“‘While not a story of exclusivity relating solely to autism, School Distress is a story dominated by complex neurodivergence and a seemingly systemic failure to meet the needs of these CYP.”

— Connolly, Constable & Mullally (2023).

We should be talking about adjustments not fines. We should be talking about child-led and trauma-centred approaches, not control. We should be talking about WHY so many neurodivergent kids struggle to attend school and why our system is failing them.

Instead, our government is focused on a punitive approach, targeting families already struggling with the effects of school-based trauma. Under the guise of ‘support’, families are fined and pressured to get their children back into the environment that harmed them.

The Schools Bill 2022 gave further powers to fine and prosecute parents. Despite there being NO evidence that fining or prosecuting children’s non-attendance is effective in getting them back to school. But there IS evidence showing the harm it causes (Epstein et al. 2019).

The British Psychological Society (2017) state that fines and prosecution is usually unlikely to have any effect on persistent absentees. Yet our government is so focused on this approach.

Posters like these from the Department for Education are insulting. They ignore the lived experience of so many. When I was worried about school, it was because by lunch-time I was rocking under a desk, incredibly distressed.

Again, 92.1% of those struggling to attend are neurodivergent.

I simply cannot fathom how Good Morning Britain and other media can describe this as a debate around ‘skiving’. I cannot believe that in 2024, school is thought to be the place children have to go to learn and that other education options aren’t more accessible and spoken about.

‘Attending school is vital to a child’s wellbeing’ is true for some but untrue for others. School can contribute to poor well-being. My attendance was once 22%. I now work as a supervisor at a job I absolutely love. My life is fulfilling. I am much happier now I don’t have to go to school.

Now, I go to work and when I forget something, I just feel frustrated at myself. I don’t worry that I am going to be shouted at. I can get out of my chair and walk around the shop floor or stockroom when I am restless. I don’t have to sit still. If I need the toilet, I can go when it is convenient. I don’t have to wait two hours until break time. I can eat a snack if I am hungry and not have to wait until it is timetabled in. I can wear clothes that don’t itch and don’t bring my skin out in rashes.

I am learning that my worth is not based on grades but on who I am as a person. I have never been happier, and that is sad. Because no education system should make a child feel such fear every day. And as I said, I am not the only one.

The narrative has to change. School distress and school trauma need to be taken seriously. The attendance ‘debate’ needs to centre neurodivergent children and their families. We need to look outside of the box and consider that maybe attendance isn’t everything.

Essential Resources:

  1. Not Fine in School - parent-led organisation empowering families and raising awareness of attendance barriers.

  2. Square Peg - fighting for ‘an education system that doesn’t expect square pegs to fit into round holes’.

  3. Steph’s Two Girls blog series ‘Not Fine in School’ - sharing real experiences.

  4. ‘Can’t Not Won’t: a story about a child who couldn’t go to school’ by Eliza Fricker, and her website.

  5. Dr Naomi Fisher - social media, books and webinars on the education system.

  6. Sunshine Support - school attendance difficulties and school-related trauma.


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