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Ghost children: How lockdown crippled school attendance

School children | Adrian Sherratt, Alamy Stock Photo

7 min read

In the wake of the pandemic, a staggering 1.7 million children are missing the equivalent of a morning a week of school. Author and journalist Harriet Sergeant argues that in the wake of the pandemic, the government has let children down

“There was this one boy in my class who disappeared after lockdown,” a 14-year-old girl from the Midlands explained. “Then one day I saw him near the shopping centre. He was sitting on a bit of old cardboard by the side of the road. He was all dirty and looked homeless. He’d always been popular so we bought him food and clothes.” Eventually a teacher was alerted and the boy came back into school. But he was so far behind, he grew frustrated and angry. Finally he left for good.  

This boy is a “ghost child” and a casualty of the calamitous decision to lock down our schools. With all the attention on the elderly, young people were left to cope. It was an unplanned, social experiment that impacted children at every stage of their lives – from toddlers to teens – and its consequences are only now becoming clear.

The numbers are brutal. A staggering 1.7 million children are missing the equivalent of a morning a week of school – that is 10 per cent of all children. Absences are up 104 per cent since the pandemic and still rising “at an alarming pace”, says the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ). At the same time 140,000 children are classed as severely absent. That is they spend more time out of school than in it. In the autumn of 2019, before lockdown, just 60,202 pupils were severely absent.

It breaks my heart looking at the kids in my class. Either they are crippled with anxiety or jumping off the walls

As one headmaster told me: “We asked kids to show way more resilience than we had to right to expect at their stage of life.” Or as a teenage girl put it, “I just sit in my room, like really depressed and scared and lonely.” A gangly, 15-year-old, at Crown Point in Streatham pulled his hood over his afro and said, “I’m upset I’ve lost so much learning. I’m stressed I’m not going to get the grades I need for college.” And he walked off angrily. 

The damage done to our young people is only now becoming visible as Lost and Not Found, a new report from the CSJ, makes clear. Nor does it seem to be getting better. Two years later young people are still turning their backs on school.

Newspaper headline about school absences (Credit:  Kathy deWitt / Alamy Stock Photo)
Newspaper headline about school absences (Credit:  Kathy deWitt / Alamy Stock Photo)

A certain number of young people have always given up on school. Fifteen years ago I befriended four members of a south London gang. At the age of 15 they were on the streets drug dealing and mugging. Now in their 30s, they have spent years in and out of prison. We should be warned. Ninety per cent of young offenders and 59 per cent of prisoners started by regularly truanting from school. Is this the future for many of the pandemic’s ghost children?

The pandemic hit the most vulnerable young people, the hardest. People on free school meals or living in disadvantaged areas are more likely to be absent. One man who works in a Pupil Referral Unit in London admitted 11 out of his 14 pupils have never returned. 

High-achieving, middle class children are also vulnerable to becoming a ghost child. One teacher at an all-girls school rated excellent by Ofsted admitted lockdown has left her pupils with severe mental health issues – “a pandemic in itself”. These were girls expected to go to university and enjoy a career. Instead a third of her pupils only turn up spasmodically for lessons: “Thirty girls have actually gone missing. Two have committed suicide.”  The pandemic has diminished their life chances, she says.

The attitude of schools and teachers made all the difference as to how they coped with the isolation, young people told me. “If you’ve never had much of a rapport with your students,” points out the head of one charity, “You certainly didn’t start during the pandemic.” 

It was pot luck whether schools and staff educated or even kept in contact with their pupils. One girl said her geography teacher had really gone the distance, unlike her English teacher who she barely heard from. A clever and competitive boy at a good school in a leafy suburb said he started lockdown optimistic and determined to work hard. But his teachers never marked it or gave him feedback. It meant he lost all motivation and fell into despair. “I was scared I had lost myself forever and become a different version of myself.”

It is extraordinary that the Department of Education allowed this inequality of provision by schools. Did they not think it was their basic duty to check what education and support children were receiving? 

Official indifference has also made sure ghost children will proliferate throughout the school system for the foreseeable future. We failed to protect babies and toddlers during lockdown and the results are now showing up in primary schools. As one primary school teacher said to me: “It breaks my heart looking at the kids in my class. Either they are crippled with anxiety or jumping off the walls. Basically they are just not happy.”

Heads report that 80-90 per cent of children arrive at reception not ready to start school. Teachers complained to me of four-year-olds still in nappies, barely able to say their own name or take off their coat. They put it down to bad parenting. Not one considered the impact of lockdown on small children and their parents.

Covid closed nearly all early year services at a stroke. Drop in baby and toddler groups halted. Parks and playgrounds shut. Even more disturbing, health visitors, so vital to new parents, vanished along with GPs. New mothers were left in a vacuum. How were they meant to find out if their baby was feeding properly, seriously ill or, that stomach churning fear of every new parent, had a disability? One first time mother was so desperate she called a neighbour.

Would the older woman listen to her son’s cries over the phone? Were they normal? Or something serious? She said: “It is not good we are left alone, no contact from health visitors and I can’t see my family. I feel very isolated and frightened. This is my first child, I don’t know where to turn.”  Another mother put it, “My biggest fear and my biggest letdown has been from professionals. I just feel abandoned.”

School closed due to Covid-19 pandemic (Credit: Maren Winter / Alamy Stock Photo)
School closed due to Covid-19 pandemic (Credit: Maren Winter / Alamy Stock Photo) 

Parents felt the isolation had impacted on how they cared for their children. One mother regretted she had come down too hard on her small son driven mad by confinement. Others felt an almost claustrophobic closeness to their now Year 1 child that made separation unbearable. One teacher described twins who vomited every morning. They had never been apart from their mother. Now she was back at work and they were in school. 

Tess Bailey-Sayer, CEO of Sea Change Trust, a charity working in Shropshire to transform young lives explains: “Children are utterly dependent on their parents’ sense of well-being and stability for their own sense of well-being and stability. It is like their weather system. The child doesn’t have the resilience to cope on its own. Some families became war zones and you are seeing the fall out in the schools.”

This fall out is set to continue for the foreseeable future. It is a catastrophe, as I have seen with the gang I befriended, that comes at great cost to young lives and society. 

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