MPs must take action for thousands of kids missing school through illness

There is no record of how many "invisible children" there are across the UK, meaning the government takes little action to get them the support they need

Campaigners are demanding recognition for the unknown number of “invisible children” – young people forced to miss school long-term through serious illness – being failed by the UK government.

In a scathing report, ‘warm’ technology start-up No Isolation attacked Westminster’s “inconsistent methods of record-keeping” meaning there is no central database of children who are in and out of school due to serious illness.

The lack of data majorly limits researchers and policymakers who could make a difference in the lives of these young people, the charity said, and restricts how much evidence can be collected on what the impact is on unwell young people.

Not attending school for long periods of time while ill is detrimental not just to achievement in school but to a child’s emotional and social wellbeing, too.

In 2017-18, more than 783,000 children were recorded as “persistently absent” from school. The Department for Education, who The Big Issue have contacted for a response, said that 41.6 per cent of those missed school because of illness, but No Isolation pointed out that this is too vague a classification for any real conclusions to be taken from it.

Local authorities do keep records of how many children are home schooled, but nothing on what the reasons are – and with councils already strapped for cash, most struggle to provide appropriate support generally without knowing how many young people they need to accommodate.

When a child is out of education for an extended period, their confidence and friendships suffer as well as their grades. Some research even suggests it can impact someone’s economic circumstances later in life.

“There are pockets of excellent practice driven on an individual level,” the report showed, “but we need systemic change at a policy level to ensure everyone is supported.”

Big Issue Changemaker Joshua Pelled founded Bright Futures UK, the only charity in the country focused on supporting children with serious illnesses.

When he was five, Pelled was diagnosed with kidney cancer and forced to take a year out of school. His treatment was successful. But at 16, his cancer returned and he had to take another year out of school just as he was due to sit GCSEs and A-Levels.

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Bright Futures offers three programmes which “revolve and evolve” around mentoring, tutoring and workshops for people aged five to 24. The mentorship on offer ranges from one-to-one sessions, buddy programmes and professional mentoring to help someone keep working towards their goals despite medical issues.

“We found the lack of data to be an essay very early on,” the 24-year-old told The Big Issue in light of the report. “We were looking for funding but of course foundations and donors want the statistics on the issue you’re looking to tackle and the kind of impact you’re going to make.”

So Bright Futures started recording data themselves. The charity, with a team of just five and dozens of volunteers, has been approached by every hospital in London and supported more than 800 young people. But it’s a drop in the ocean in terms of how many young people are affected across the UK.

“Kids develop mental health problems off the back of physical illnesses,” Pelled said when asked about the impact a lack of support has on young people out of school through illness. “They’re isolated and alone, those stressors are compounded from not having academic or social support.

“We see cases like that every day.”

The charity founder said it also creates an attainment gap – but, because there is no central database, it’s a largely undocumented one.

“They fall massively short of what they should be achieving in their grades – to the extent that any student who goes through a period of illness once they return to school will almost inevitably be achieving Cs or lower. Not because they’re not academically capable, just because there’s no support for them.”