Opinion

Why are so many children vanishing from school?

Beth Prescott from the Centre for Social Justice explains the organisation's research into children missing from school across the UK.

There were 140,000 so-called ghost children missing from schools in summer 2022. Image: Big Issue/Shuttestock

School absence is at a crisis point. The number of children absent from school more often than not has reached an all-time high.

A new report from The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) has found that the number of severely absent so-called ‘ghost children’ reached 140,000 in the summer of 2022. That’s a 134 per cent increase compared to before the pandemic.  And 1-in-4 children are now persistently absent, missing more than 10 per cent of school on a regular basis. That’s nearly 2 million children, double the pre-pandemic rate of persistent absence.

The CSJ first uncovered the issue of ‘ghost children’ when schools returned in Autumn 2020. They found that, following school shutdowns, nearly 100,000 children had become severely absent. Even as schools have returned in full, the number of severely absent children has continued to grow. At an alarming pace, children are disengaging with education entirely.

This really matters.  Every day of school missed reduces a child’s future life chances. The government has acknowledged that even a single day of school missed can have a negative effect on a child’s GCSE results. Research in 2019 found that children in Key Stage 2 who did not meet the expected standard and literacy and numeracy missed, on average, four more days per school year than their peers.

Why are so many children vanishing from school?

We recently spoke to 50 charities, local authorities, schools and alternative providers working in this space.  They told us that it is a complex issue, with children suffering from increased mental health, unmet SEND needs, disrupted home environments and a shift in attitudes towards school attendance since the pandemic. 

One of the underlying barriers to school attendance is social disadvantage. Absence data shows that children who were eligible for free school meals have consistently higher rates of absence than their peers. In 2021/22 their rates of severe absence severe absence were more than triple the average.

We heard of how families are increasingly unable to afford necessities such as travel, food, and toiletries.  If you cannot afford the bus, it’s hard to get to school.  If you cannot wash in the morning, then you are more likely to be bullied at school.  If there’s not enough food in the house, you don’t have the energy to go to school or concentrate when you get there.  Absence fines often only serve to drive families stressed by cost-of-living pressures away from school.

We were told how insecure or temporary housing can affect attendance, particularly if a child is placed in temporary accommodation far away from their school, with limited access to transport links.  We also heard distressing stories of children suffering from domestic violence, living in dysfunctional households where going to school simply was not on the agenda.

So what can we do about it?

Something has to change if we are not to risk an entire generation being locked out of their potential.  And the tax-payer forking out billions of pounds to pick up the pieces from underachievement and social disfunction for years to come.

The government has taken welcome action towards tackling school absence, through new guidance, the Attendance Alliance and introducing an Attendance Advisors pilot. However, these actions do not go far enough or quickly enough given the scale of the problem.

The CSJ is calling for a national programme of 2,000 attendance mentors, to work with families to understand and remove the underlying barriers to school attendance.  Education charity, School-Home Support, already uses attendance practitioners to support children with high levels of absence.  Their work has provided invaluable insight into the positive difference attendance mentors can have on reducing absence. This is a proven intervention that should be rolled out nationally without delay.

We also want to see a whole-family approach to attendance, where parents are engaged and where children and their families can better access the support they need in a timely manner.   

Every day we fail to act, is another day a child falls further behind in their education and another day we risk leaving a generation behind. It is time for an all-encompassing whole-family approach to tackling school absence, that finally brings these children back into school, equipping them with the skills, education and opportunity to succeed.

The CSJ’s latest report on school absence, Lost and Not Found, is available here.

Beth Prescott is a senior researcher with the CSJ education unit.

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