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Staggering 50 per cent jump in the number of “ghost children” reveals new report

students walking through gate
  • More than a quarter of all children regularly miss classes
  • Number of children missing half of their time in school has reached a record high
  • Severe absence leaps from 93,000 to 140,000 pupils as long-term impact of pandemic-inspired school closures hits home
  • Severe absence soars by 134 per cent since pre-pandemic

 The number of children absent from school more often than not has jumped by a staggering 50 per cent over less than two years, according to an alarming new study from a major think-tank.

The report from the Centre for Social Justice finds that the number of severely absent so-called ‘ghost children’ – not at their desks more than 50 per cent of the time – rocketed from 93,000 in the autumn of 2020 to 140,000 in the summer of 2022. The number of severely absent children is now at an all-time high.

This represents a rise of 134 per cent since the last term before the pandemic, Autumn 2019. It is the equivalent of 137 entire schools where the children are mostly missing lessons.

The startling CSJ report, Lost and Not Found, highlights the immense educational damage done by school shutdowns because of Covid. One in 50 children are regularly skipping lessons despite remaining on class rolls. Absenteeism rates are highest in the most disadvantaged areas.

More than 110,000 of these pupils (78 per cent of the total severely absent children) are from state-funded secondary schools. According to the CSJ, the level of absenteeism across all secondary schools is equivalent to every class losing a pupil.

It is not just severe absence that is on the rise. Nearly 2 million children are persistently absent (absent more than 10 per cent of the time). More than a quarter of children are missing classes on a regular basis. The rate of persistent absence is double the rate of persistent absence pre-pandemic.

The report exposes the many reasons children are missing school including: increased anxiety and mental health problems, unmet special educational needs/disabilities, and issues at home.

The Government has stated that the attendance gap is one of the key risks for the Department for Education this year and that this gap “cannot be explained by directly permissible COVID-19 related absences”.

At an alarming pace, children are disengaging with education entirely. To combat this shocking trend the CSJ sets out a seven-point plan to support children back into school:

1. Roll out attendance mentors

  • The Department for Education should roll out a national programme of 2,000 attendance mentors. A proven intervention, these mentors would work with families to understand and remove the underlying barriers to school attendance.  

A national programme would cost an estimated £80 million per year. This could be funded through the existing Supporting Families programme.

2. Ensure families can access the right support

  • The current Department for Education guidance on attendance should be made statutory.  

This would help ensure all parents and children are able to access the appropriate support they need to both prevent and reduce absence.

3. Put more support in place in schools

  • As part of a broader Parental Participation Strategy, the Government should release guidance on the best practice for engaging parents of children who are severely absent.
  • Family Hubs should be integrated with existing school services and collocated within schools.
  • The Government should fast track its commitment to roll out designated mental health leads for all schools. School should be supported to develop a whole-school approach to mental health.

4. Improve school attendance data

  • The Department for Education should develop new metrics to track school attendance. This data should examine attendance patterns at an individual and school level and should be incorporated into the attendance dashboard.

5. Recognise the value of relational work

  • The Government should follow through on its 2019 manifesto commitment to invest £500 million in new youth clubs and services, where there remains considerable underspend.
  • This should be scaled up through a new match-fund scheme designed to inspire major businesses, charities and third sector organisations to support a national mission of returning our young people to school.

6. Introduce an ‘enrichment guarantee’ in our schools

  • The Government should introduce a new ‘enrichment guarantee’ in schools. When activities take place in the morning, breakfast clubs should be incorporated as part of the enrichment guarantee.

7. Ensure fines are working

  • The fines for School Attendance Orders and attendance prosecution should be made the same value to avoid creating perverse incentives that push children out of the education system.

Flick Drummond MP, a member of the Commons Education Select Committee, says in a foreword to the report:

“School absence has become a defining feature of our education system. The CSJ has revealed that there is one child in every class who is being denied access to a brilliant education. One child in every class who we cannot account for.

“Our most vulnerable children are those most likely to be missing. 140,000 children have slipped through the cracks. We must act urgently to get these children back into school. If we do not act now, we will have failed this generation.”

The CSJ’s Policy Director, Joe Shalam, said:

“Since the pandemic, children have been missing school at a terrifying rate. If more than a quarter of children are regularly missing classes, we are failing an entire generation. A generation that will be locked away from reaching their undoubted potential.

“Far too often, schools and local authorities are unable to provide the support that children need to access education. This cannot be allowed to go on. Our recommendations provide a blueprint for how we can support the most vulnerable severely absent children to return to school.”

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