Post-pandemic, school refusal rates are rocketing at second level - Ellie Hanan Moran looks at why that is, and why we should care
As the lockdowns and restrictions have eased since the height of Covid-19, Ireland has made a return to relative normality. However, as hard as the Irish government and population try to emulate the time before the pandemic hit, lockdowns have undeniably left an impact in many areas across Irish life. One such area of impact is the struggle of returning to school after so much missed due to restrictions. Parentline reports a doubling of the number of calls they have received relating to school refusal over the past two years.
School has always been a given and expected part of childhood. As awful an experience it can be, the majority of children do not question that school is something they have no choice but to do, and while they may fake a sick day every now and then, very few children consider school so pointless that they simply refuse to attend in any long-term capacity. All that changed when lockdowns were introduced. Suddenly it was possible to miss months on end of schooling, and to return without any particular consequences (at least any immediately noticeable consequences). Out of routine, and no longer seeing school as a determined thing there was no way around, but instead something a bit more fluid in its need and function; many children struggled with the return. Some who struggled with the return may have gradually accepted the necessity of school - especially anxious children afraid of missing out or grades dropping, or children who struggle to keep up in school and don't wish to fall further behind. The children, however, who don't care much for the social element, and who find the workload easy and/or boring, now find that their one reason for going to school, the assumption that it was non-negotiable, is gone. With nothing motivating them to go anymore, these children, often ones with academic potential and previously good grades, simply refuse to attend school.
With nothing motivating them to go anymore, these children, often ones with academic potential and previously good grades, simply refuse to attend school.
Disillusionment with life and realisation that what you once considered significant and immutably concrete may actually be not what they seemed, is usually a feeling that doesn’t hit until at least the late teens or early 20s. The major disruption to the norm young people are facing is forcing that realisation much earlier, alongside other contributing factors like oversaturation of news and the accessibility of catastrophizing content that can cause overwhelm. The Gen Z brand of existentialism or nihilism elevates teen angst and apathy in a much more widespread way than previous generations, and the major disruptions to standard parts of childhood such as mandatory schooling have only served to exacerbate this. This is not to say that Gen Z’s existentialism and disillusionment with education and life are unfounded. We are living in times that create such constant sensory overload that it only makes sense that any normal reaction would be to either break down over it or mentally close off to avoid the sheer intensity, potentially suppressing overwhelm or masking with humour.
While the rise in school refusal seems most common between the ages of 10 and 16, its impact on older teenagers is undeniable. Where future plans seemed clear before the pandemic, many teenagers have had to confront the fact that their feelings and points of view have changed - be that on their education, their future plans, or the world more broadly. Secondary schools were closed for so long that changes were made to three years of the Leaving Certificate. In 2020, the exams were put off and then graded through predicted grades with the option of sitting exams if students took issue with their result. In 2021, having missed most of sixth year and a portion of fifth, the exams were blended in format and changed to accommodate the lesser material it was possible to cover given the missed time. Then in 2022, students had generally missed fifth year and had restrictions in sixth, so the curriculum was reduced in some subjects to reflect that, and the move toward blended exams was embraced further, while at the same time more reliance on sat exams were reintroduced. All the changes made meant that expected grades and points shifted in unpredictable ways and Leaving Certificate students were left even more anxious than before in regard to their futures. Many took a gap year before college, hoping to reapply when the lockdowns passed, but the return to academia after a hiatus can be extremely challenging. Older teenagers and young adults affected by the last few years have found a great deal of uncertainty in their lives, even more than expected for a typically tumultuous life chapter.
Where future plans seemed clear before the pandemic, many teenagers have had to confront the fact that their feelings and points of view have changed - be that on their education, their future plans, or the world more broadly
This year, as the 2023 Leaving Certificate is on the horizon, it is the first year since before the pandemic that the Leaving Certificate students did not have senior cycles that were massively impacted by Covid-19 lockdowns. While this seems like a return to normality at last, elements of the blended style and adjustments made remain, and many students impacted by the lost school time struggle to find motivation. It is unclear as to how realistic the stated points on courses have been the last few years, and having missed less curriculum than the past three years of Leaving Certificate students, the 2023 sixth years have an increased standard. They may have the advantage of having missed very little of their senior cycle, but to dismiss the potential impact of their missing time the previous few years would be unfair.
While the struggles of the older teenagers and young adults affected seem to be of most urgent importance, those of younger children and teenagers should not be disregarded. Considering the time of heightened emotional and social learning done throughout primary school and early secondary school, it is worth asking what impact younger children and teenagers' school refusal now will have down the line. It is impossible to know yet, but I fear it may create greater struggles tudentsin the future in areas from academia and university attendance to mental health and general motivation among younger people. It is difficult to know what actions to take, both individually in the home and as a country, to curb the rise in school refusal and other long-term effects of missed school, but it is an issue that needs attention. Instead, I fear it will be swept under the rug, as a part of the country’s desperate attempt to pretend the past few years of lockdowns and restrictions didn’t happen, or that we have returned as if it has never happened.