Written evidence submitted by the Centre for Self Managed Learning


I submit this piece as the Chair of Governors of Self Managed Learning College and a Trustee of our parent educational charity the Centre for Self Managed Learning. Our College provides part time education to children aged 9-16, most of whom have been labelled as school refusers.

Our case here is that school is increasingly being recognised by many parents and children as a place which can be unsafe and that does not meet the educational needs of many children. If around 1.5 million children are not regular attenders there is something wrong with schools – and not with the majority of these children. Attempts to patch up a system which is manifestly failing many children will not work. Not only will the ‘carrots’ be sub-optimal but the ‘stick’ of more fines and more prison sentences for parents will make matters worse for children.

The following are examples of where school has proven to be a problem. The appendix is based on the views on school of children who attend the SML learning community that is part of the ‘otherwise’ provision.

Given the latest evidence that around 25% of children are neurodiverse, it is apparent that many children who fall into this category find school a problem. Children on the autistic spectrum have been specifically identified as finding the classroom an impossible environment in which to learn, though neurodiversity covers a wider range of children.

The notion that teachers are all-seeing and can keep all children in school safe seems odd. Are teachers watching girls being sexually abused or boys being assaulted and doing nothing about it? It is clear that school can be a very unsafe place for many children, according to Ofsted, and teachers are not at all in control of what goes on in school.

The following is from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

“Schools are not as safe for children as they should be and children’s interests do not always come first when allegations of sexual abuse are made, a report by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has found.”

The Inquiry heard evidence about ineffective safeguarding in schools during the past 20 years and the testimonies on the ‘Everyone’s Invited’ website demonstrate that currently, for children in some schools, sexual abuse and harassment between peers remain endemic. Chair to the Inquiry, Professor Alexis Jay said:

“Schools play a central role in the lives of almost nine million children in England and half a million in Wales. They should be places of learning where children are nurtured by trusted teachers and are able to flourish in a safe environment. This is in contrast to the many shocking instances of child sexual abuse detailed in this report. They represent the opposite of everything that a school should be.”


The following are examples of the failure of the schooling provision, and they support our statements above. In summary they challenge assumptions about the espousal by many that school should be the place for all children. Those being presently failed include:

Within these global figures there are clear overlaps. For instance, neurodiverse children are also more likely to be bullied - as are homosexual children. Being bullied itself is linked to already having, or later developing, mental health problems.

Summer-born children

The Department for Education’s own research shows that at least 10,000 summer-born (May to August) children gain worse results at GCSE than autumn-born (September to December) children, just because of their birth date. Nothing else. The research shows that this gap appears as soon as children start at school and carries on right into higher education. 18.8% of August-born young people enter university at 18 compared with 21.3% for September-born young people.

The figures also show that summer-born children are more likely to be labelled as special needs and more likely to have been identified as having a range of symptoms such as learning difficulties and speech, language and communication needs. Indeed, by the age of 7 in primary school, August-born children are nearly 90% more likely to be identified as SEN (Special Educational Needs) than September-born children. 

All this evidence points to the fact that current school arrangements and structures are inherently discriminatory. There is no way to make the classroom, the rigid subject-based curriculum and imposed timetables solve problems of inequality. The structures and processes of schooling are inherently faulty. They even encourage parents and teachers to make erroneous judgements. For instance, both parents and teachers of summer-born children are more likely to underestimate the abilities of such children, according to the Government’s own research.


It is well-known that certain groups do not do as well in school as they should do, given a school environment which has not accommodated their differences. 

The groups that are well-known to do less well in school in the UK and are therefore less likely to go into higher education include the following: children in care (looked after children, as they may be labelled); autistic children; those who are adopted; those on free school meals (which is evidence of poverty); young people with ADHD; working class children, especially from white and Afro-Caribbean backgrounds; young people with a severe physical disability.

Here is some of the evidence in relation to the problems that school creates for certain young people.

‘In 2017, more than 16,000 parents in the UK were prosecuted by the courts for their children being absent from school.’ ‘it is most commonly children with special educational needs who are regularly missing school and families feel these needs are not being met adequately in schools’. ‘Of the parents prosecuted in 2017 71% were women and 10 parents (nine women) received custodial sentences.’ (i.e. prison).

The group that is commonly unrecognised as having different issues in school are those who are very introverted. Susan Cain presents important research evidence about the discrimination against introverts, who she suggests make up more than one third of the population. As she argues, ‘many schools are designed for extroverts’. She suggests that ‘we tend to forget that there’s nothing sacrosanct about learning in large group classrooms, and that we organise students this way, not because it’s the best way to learn, but because it’s cost efficient and what else would we do with our children while the grown-ups are at work?’

We would argue that the attempt is low-cost, but actually inefficient for learners grouped in large classrooms. She does point out that too often, what children have to do is to be prepared to learn how to survive in a school day, just because they are more introverted. One could argue that this is similar to all the other negative differences as perceived by the system.


Bullying is a major problem, especially in secondary schools. Research by the anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label has the highest figure of 50% bullied at some point from its recent study of 8,850 people aged 12-20. A Department for Education figure suggests nearly 40% in a 12-month period and 6% on a daily basis. In addition, Ditch the Label’s survey clearly shows the incidence of bullying is increasing year on year, so the problem is, in fact, growing.

Whilst there are all sorts of initiatives to support bullied children, such as anti-bullying weeks and bully buddies, the problem of bullying in schools has not been solved and the situation is not getting any better, if one looks at national figures. The big problem seems to be that because bullying is regarded as inevitable and endemic within secondary/high schools, it is not really taken seriously. If it were really taken seriously, bullying would be a rare event.

A Medical Research Council UK study estimated that nearly one hundred thousand children in the country are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder because of severe bullying in school. The study also revealed that half of young people with post-traumatic stress disorder had self-harmed and one in five had attempted suicide since the age of 12. 

One problem we have seen is a growing trend to ‘blame the victim’. At a meeting where an educational psychologist spoke about their role with bullied children, they seemed to feel that the main thing they should do was to develop resilience in bullied children. This does nothing to address the systemic issues within a school and can appear to those who are being bullied that they are somehow lesser persons, because they need some training in resilience. 

Another problem is the assumption that children will be bullied and it’s just part of the growing up process - and once they leave school, it will all be fine. Nothing could be further from the truth. A number of rigorous research studies have shown that effects of bullying last into adulthood. Children bullied in school are significantly more likely to have psychosis in adult life (one study showed that bullied children are 2.72 times more likely to suffer psychotic episodes than the rest of the population). There are no research studies that support the opinion that children will get over the bullying – they don’t.

None of the above address instances of bullying by teachers which children have cited as a reason to remove themselves from school. Although this could be judged as a minor issue, in comparison to peer-on-peer bullying, it should nonetheless be a matter of serious concern.


We would recommend that the Committee investigate why many children do not want to go to school. If school is such a wonderful institution why don’t they want to go there? In the above we have outlined the research evidence on why many quite reasonably do not want to attend school. If you are regularly being abused in school why would you want to be there? If you are not learning what you need to learn in order to lead a good life, why would you want to attend?

Parents should not be ‘supported’ to force their offspring to attend school. Parents need to be supported to make judgements based on their real knowledge of their children and they should be helped to understand that school is not compulsory – and that there are legal alternatives. One alternative is elective home education. Another is flexischooling. And there has been a growth in small learning communities (such as the one that we run) that provide part-time education that has been proven to provide an ideal solution to school attendance problems.

Appendix - Students’ views on formal education


There is currently a mood in political and establishment circles that challenges the notion that children are able to get a suitable education outside school. For instance, the Local Government Association submission to the Parliamentary Committee on Education stated that all children need formal education. The current law which gives equal status to education in school and education out of school is being undermined by opinions not based on evidence that, despite the law, any education outside school is intrinsically inferior and likewise, that any education inside school is superior. 

I asked students (aged 9-16) in Self Managed Learning College (SML College) about their views of formal education. A group of ten (out of our 40 students) volunteered to give their views as a group. The statement below was then circulated to all students and was unanimously agreed.

School was universally seen as having failed these young people, who previously had been to school. Specific criticisms of formal education included (in the students’ words):

Students feel that being able to come to a part-time place like SML College deals with their concerns about formal education. They do not welcome the idea of being forced to attend school.

Dr Ian Cunningham.

February 2023