How online learning can empower students with school refusal

If school refusal (or ‘school can’t’) is affecting your family, there is hope. Learn more about this growing issue, and how online learning might help.

A young high school student frowning at her work

It’s an issue that’s estimated to affect some 39% of school-age children in Australia. In 2023 alone it touched the lives of more than 1.5 million students. And the ripple effect can be huge. 

Those impacted can experience all sorts of challenges, including a disrupted education, stigma and social isolation. 

And yet, outside of the parent-teacher community, ‘school refusal’ is both little-known and widely misunderstood.  

What is school refusal?

A subject known by many names (school phobia, school distress, school avoidance) ‘school refusal’ has become the catch-all term to describe low (or no) school attendance.

The issue is very different from truancy. Rather than missing school intentionally, without reason and without the knowledge of their parents, students typically face such emotional distress at the prospect of going to school that it renders them unable to attend altogether. 

A growing band of parents argue that the term ‘school refusal’ only contributes to the associated confusion and shame. And they’re hoping to change the narrative by introducing a more empathetic name into the public consciousness—‘school can’t.’      

What causes ‘school can’t’?

A wide range of triggers are recognised as causing school can’t. Mental health difficulties, such as anxiety, depression, trauma, or separation anxiety can be a contributing factor for some students, bullying another. 

Numerous studies have shown, however, that neurodivergent students are much more at risk. In a sample size of 947 cases of school can’t, one UK study found that 92% of all those affected were neurodivergent, with 83% identifying as autistic. Other disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are commonly associated with school can’t too.      

Advocates argue that the outdated one-size-fits-all approach of traditional schooling is not fit for purpose, and nowhere near inclusive enough to serve each individual student’s needs. The lack of resources dedicated to student mental health, coupled with a system built to favour neurotypical students—from the classroom environment to the way the curriculum is delivered and the learning strategies employed—is, they say, at the root of the issue. 

Fortunately, there are other pathways available…

What happens if a child refuses to go to school in Australia?

Each state and territory in Australia has its own rules when it comes to school absences, but      attending school is largely compulsory between the ages of six and 15. Schools will typically collaborate with parents to try to find a solution, often working with a psychologist or school counsellor.

If a solution can’t be found with a student’s current school, there are other alternatives depending on your child’s age, interests and needs. They include:

  • Finding a new school, whether it’s simply a smaller state school, a ‘progressive’ state school, a faith-based school, a private or state-run specialist school (such as one that caters solely to autistic children), or an independent school with Steiner- or Montessori-based philosophies, for example
  • Enrolling in vocational training by attending TAFE, undertaking an apprenticeship or undertaking a school-based traineeship
  • Homeschooling
  • Online learning, either through an organisation such as Open Universities Australia, or a state-based virtual school

A happy teenager drawing in a notebook while looking at his laptop

How online learning can empower students with school can’t 

For some students, distance education can offer the temporary reset needed before re-entering the school system. For others, online learning can better accommodate their needs and provide the best long-term solution. 

While remote learning is no one-size-fits-all remedy, there are a number of reasons why it can benefit some students affected by school can’t, offering the possibility of happier, more engaged students who stand a greater shot at academic success. 

Those who’ve experienced bullying at school, for example, are safely removed from the classroom. For some students with autism, the social anxiety that comes with face-to-face learning, commuting, the noisy classroom environment and classroom-based group or presentation tasks is removed, and a greater element of control is introduced. While for students with ADHD, the increased autonomy that online learning can offer could help to bolster their motivation.     

In short, online learning can provide students with a more flexible approach to education that helps them feel empowered and able to achieve their true potential.  

How and where to study online for students experiencing school can’t

Most states and territories in Australia offer some form of virtual state-run school to eligible students. And for those who feel that this isn’t the right fit, a study path is available online through Open Universities Australia. 

Students as young as 13 can enrol in select undergraduate subjects with the permission of a parent or guardian (some participating universities will also carry out an assessment). 

They can complete a standalone subject to get a feel for what online university study is like and to build their confidence. If they’d like to continue into a degree, the subject or subjects they complete can help them meet the entry requirements whenever they’re ready—even if it’s a few years down the track. Knowing they don’t need an ATAR to eventually study at university can be empowering in itself.  

Introductory subjects like Introduction to Uni Culture and Fundamentals of Academic Writing can be fantastic options for easing into online learning and getting to know the academic skills needed for university. Other students enjoy testing the waters with creative subjects in writing or design, where they’re free to express themselves beyond the pressures of a classroom. But there are options across all sorts of study areas—from information technology and science to health and psychology

Further help

Our friendly student advisors can help you find out what the next steps are, and advise you on what courses are available, whether you’re looking to pursue a special interest or work towards a specific career path.

If you’re a parent or guardian of a child that is no longer able to attend school and you’re seeking help, there are resources available:

  • School Can’t Australia is a volunteer-run movement that provides peer support for parents through its Facebook group, and advocates for families experiencing school attendance difficulties.
  • ParentLine is a free telephone counselling and support service for parents and carers that’s available in all states and territories.
  • The National Youth Mental Health Foundation (headspace) offers free and confidential sessions with clinicians through webchat, phone or email, and provides online advice and peer group chats with other parents.


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