When school isn’t an option: A parent’s story

It started towards the end of Primary School. Fifth class had already been difficult and an ongoing family health crisis that had dropped a bomb into our life. By the last term of Fifth Class, Róisín* (name changed) had had enough. It was all just too much. “I can’t” said the previously fun, happy, smiley girl. She would sit in the car and cry and cry and cry. I tried everything – being nice, being firm, being shouty (not proud of this). Threats, promises, begging, pleading. “You have to get an education”, “everyone has to go to school”, and “it’s the law!”. Nothing worked. Eventually I would give up and drive home. I took Róisín to our lovely and hugely supportive GP who took ‘it’school refusal – very seriously and referred us to CAMHS. Various interventions followed, some very helpful, some not so much.

Sixth class started out better, but after a few weeks, we were back in the same situation. Her wonderful teacher and the principal tried their best, but the onus was always on us to ‘get her in’ and they would ‘do the rest’. Nobody seemed to see the ‘getting her in’ was the issue. “I can’t”, she said. The first Covid lockdown was a blessing in disguise. No-one else ‘could’ either.

Róisín tried first year in two different schools, neither, in retrospect, the right fit. The guidance counsellor at the first school gave excellent support, including linking in with the NEPS psychologist whose mantra ‘safe, calm and connected’ gave us something far more fundamental to work on. Róisín never really attended this school. The following academic year, she started First Year in another secondary school, which began well but it didn’t last. “You get her in and we’ll do the rest”. Róisín begged to go to an online school. We didn’t even know if they existed.

Through our fantastic Educational Welfare Officer, Róisín, we heard about iScoil. It seemed like a dream come true and she put Róisín’s name forward. She had never put in an application with so many interventions; I didn’t know whether to be proud or horrified. We were so thrilled when Róisín was offered a place. The concern, frustration and worry melted away. She was in school. She was getting an education. The relief was immense. I feel that iScoil gave us all space to breathe. The constant pressure on us all lifted.

iScoil students take a core set of compulsory modules and then choose a set of further modules from a selection. Róisín had a mentor, Siobhán, who guided her and set her tasks each day. Students can log in at any time during the day. The workload is manageable and students maintain a degree of autonomy, within reasonable expectations. Continuing her education, being at school, and not having to constantly explain why she wasn’t, gave her confidence and boosted her self-esteem. She began to see that maybe there was hope, that she could go back to mainstream school and achieve her aspirations. After a year and a few courses with iScoil, her confidence had returned and she wanted to try school again.

A student logs in to iScoil

At the best of times, it is not easy to start at a new school, but at 16, when you have been out of the routine for the best part of four years it’s an uphill struggle. It’s early days and it hasn’t been entirely straightforward, but she is getting there. She’s now in Transition Year in a local school, where they meet the kids where they are at, while having clear expectations and boundaries. The year of iScoil gave her (and all of us) time to breathe, time to think and time to work out what Róisín really wanted, and what type of school would work. Róisín is ambitious and has very clear plans for her future. Róisín thought she couldn’t. Turns out she can.

Many thanks to the artist Eliza Fricker, for permission to publish this image chosen by Róisin’s mother. You can find Eliza’s work on missingthemark.co.uk/

Click here to read about iScoil from the student perspective.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of the Museum of Childhood Ireland.