An Exploration of the Experiences of Parents Who Seek to Resolve School Attendance Problems and Barriers

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2022-01

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De Montfort University

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Peer reviewed

Abstract

School attendance problems (SAPs) have been framed in terms of ‘truancy’, ‘school phobia’, ‘school refusal’, ‘school withdrawal’ and a range of similar terms. This variation reflects the heterogeneity of both SAPs (Kearney et al., 2019), and the varied backgrounds of practitioners conducting SAPs research (Birioukov, 2016). This longstanding discourse suggests the behaviour of absentee children is deviant or neurotic, and their parents are in some way deficient, failing, or neglectful (Southwell, 2006; Donoghue, 2011). However, this fails to address the experiences of parents who actively seek to resolve SAPs, and perceive a child is unable to attend for reasons of anxiety and distress, possibly in relation to school-based influences (e.g., Mind, 2021; Ditch the Label, 2020). These aspects of SAPs have received scant attention in the literature. Therefore, to understand this phenomenon better, this study set out to investigate the perspectives and experiences of parents in this situation.

Email-based interviews were conducted with forty members of a social media-based support group for parents seeking support for their children’s SAPs. Thematic Analysis of data led to the concept of ‘Parents Journeys’ through SAPs, setting out an overview of common experiences. This indicated how social and systemic responses to SAPs act as barriers that prevent or hinder parents’ ability to comply with their legal duty to ensure children access an education (section 7, Education Act 1996). It was noted that a tension exists where parents who participated in this study have a shared understanding of SAPs which validates their experiences, yet this is at odds with the shared reality and understanding of school staff and other professionals.

Recent research highlights the importance of holistic assessment of individual circumstances to better understand the influence of school and wider systemic factors upon cases of SAPs (e.g., Melvin et al. 2019). In this study an adapted version of Bronfenbrenner’s Bioecological Model (1979, 1998, 2005) conceptualised the social and systemic complexity of the SAPs context from the parental viewpoint. This adapted model offers a new way to understand how the successful resolution of SAPs will require multi-level changes in school attendance related discourse, practice, and policy.

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