Lost but not forgotten: the reality of severe absence in schools post-lockdown.

Covid-19 has wreaked havoc in our schools. Young people’s life chances have been laid to waste by successive school shutdowns and interruptions to their learning. The damage caused by lockdowns could not be clearer than in the case of school attendance: the pandemic has given rise to a generation of ghost children. If we’re not careful, we are creating an Oliver Twist generation of children exposed to significant safeguarding hazards including tough domestic situations at home, online harms and joining county line gangs.

100,000 kids have almost entirely disappeared from education since schools returned last year. The existence of these so called “ghost children” is nothing short of a national disaster.

These children are at risk of abuse after failing to come back to school. The tragic case of five-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, who was cruelly poisoned then beaten to death by his parents, is a painful case in point. Gang-related and other safeguarding risks abound when children disappear from schools. This has been confirmed by charities who work with these children who have seen an alarming spike in safeguarding referrals this year.

Schools provide a safe haven for those in chaotic home environments and are ideally placed to identify problems before they escalate. The stop-start nature of successive lockdowns eroded that protective factor and, in doing so, has put the lives of ghost children at stake.

How can it be that there is still no data or proper action to know what has happened to these children since Autumn 2020? How is it possible that we are still waiting for DfE officials to produce up to date figures on their whereabouts? This lack of data collection means many more children could be at risk of falling off the school roll altogether.

Attendance is the most basic education requirement: it is the first and most important rung on the ladder of opportunity. We cannot afford to discard these children; we must fight for them to return to our classrooms.

This incisive report lays bare the scale of the problem. Severe absence has spread through our school system like wildfire: nearly 800 schools have an entire class-worth of ghost children. In fact, in half of all local authorities over 500 children are severely absent.

These children are some of our most vulnerable. A staggering 1 in 10 of all identified ghost children had a social, emotional, and mental health need. In fact, disadvantaged pupils fare the worst when it comes to attendance. Schools with the most disadvantaged intakes were 10 times as likely to have a whole class worth of severely absent pupils in Autumn 2020, compared to schools with the most affluent intakes. Children who were eligible for free school meals were over three times more likely to be severely absent.

As schools have reopened, we stand at the crossroads and the government must decide if education is about social justice or is simply a case of “survival of the fittest”. Charles Dickens wrote of “so many things forgotten, and so many more which might have been repaired”. If we are to save the Oliver Twist generation of ‘ghost children’, we must act now. If we do nothing, we will be haunted by them forever.

Robert Halfon MP
Chair of the Education Select Committee

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