The government must act now to ensure thousands of ‘ghost’ pupils return to school
A new term beckons. New teachers, fresh uniforms, unfamiliar classmates. In Parliament, a new Prime Minister and Cabinet to boot.
September brought with it the crisp air of beginnings and the promise of opportunity that education provides. But hanging over the autumn 2022 term is the spectre of the hundreds of thousands of children who will not return to the classroom.
One in five children in England are persistently absent from school (missing more than 10 per cent of sessions). This equates to 22 per cent of our young people; 1,782,000 pupils who are slipping through the gaps in our system and are at risk of never catching up. This is the mild end of the spectrum. On top of this, another 124,000 children are severely absent, turning up for only half (or less) of their education. Then there are the unknown quantities of CMEs (Children Missing from Education) who have simply vanished; perhaps now abroad or in an unregistered education setting – if they are able to access education at all.
We must have a statutory register of those children not in school
These figures are mere estimates. In truth, the true scale of the problem is unknown. As noted by both the Children’s Commissioner, Dame Rachel de Souza, and the Commons Education Select Committee (which I chair), local authority (LA) data leaves Swiss-cheese-like holes in our knowledge, making it near-impossible to get a handle on the situation and tackle it effectively.
The image of a desolate morning roll-call is bleak, but the absences recorded on them represent only those children known to authorities. LAs have no watertight way of knowing the exact number of children resident in their local area. Office for National Statistics figures rely on the last census, which was in 2011. GP records omit those who are simply not registered with a doctor. Using a combination of data sources would provide more accurate and up-to-date estimates. It is imperative, as Dame de Souza suggested in her March report, that schools and LAs work together, and at once, to better monitor all children in their authority. This must include a statutory register of those children not in school, as the Education Committee recommended last July.
The Schools Bill currently going through Parliament will require LAs to keep registers of children not in school. It cannot be implemented quickly enough – not least because this register, while fundamental, will be just the first step in actually tackling the magnitude of this crisis.
Earlier this year, the Department for Education (DfE) formed its attendance alliance group, with the sole aim of raising attendance in education. Some of the issues have arisen from parents’ anxiety around Covid-19, the shocking deterioration in our young peoples’ mental health, and a slow disengagement from education as the lockdowns persisted. It is time to act – before these trends become embedded, and before school is seen as optional.
In our own March report, Is the Catch-up Programme fit for purpose?, the Education Committee urged the DfE to take steps to address the issue of persistent and severe absence – a recommendation that the government’s response skated over. In the Children’s Commissioner’s report, one LA reported a case load of more than 3,000 children per staff member in the inclusion and attendance team. Proactive action from the government is imperative.
The Children’s Commissioner called for 100 per cent attendance across England’s state schools in the first week of the new term. Soon we will see just how far we have fallen of this target. The cohort of ghost pupils must be placed at the top of the new Education Secretary’s in-tray. The children who have fallen through gaps in our system and off the radar will stay there, unless the government acts now to encourage them back into school and to access the opportunities that are rightfully theirs.
Robert Halfon, Conservative MP for Harlow and chair of the Education Select Committee.
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