School leaders called for a concerted effort to trace the children who have failed to return to school and get them back into the classroom, amid fears some may have left the country.
Robert Halfon, chair of the education select committee, said the number of children classed as “severely absent”–missing half or more of their schooling–has increased dramatically during the pandemic.
Figures from the Centre for Social Justice show nearly 100,000 children have failed to return to school full-time since they reopened.
Speaking at the education committee on Tuesday Mr Halfon said: “How do we get these children – I describe them as the ghost children - who haven’t even returned to school when they have been fully open – how do we successfully support these children back into school?”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We should all be hugely concerned about these missing young people…We need forensically to know who are they…some of them I know are kids who haven’t returned from going to visit family ages ago, they are just still out of the country.”
He said there is also another group of young people who feel “very vulnerable, very scared” and their parents are supporting them in not coming to school.
A third category is children of parents who have “given up” and have taken the opportunity to have an early holiday.
He said: “We now need an extraordinary campaign to demonstrate that when schools and colleges open again in September, it is going to be as close to business as usual as we can make it.”
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU) said some schools are cutting their attendance officers, who are responsible for phoning home to find out why a child has not turned up. He called for more funding to help schools find and encourage children back to school.
School absence hits new record
It comes as figures released on Tuesday show Covid-related pupil absence in schools in England has hit a new record high since all students returned to class in March.
Around 11.2 per cent of state school pupils did not attend class for Covid-19 related reasons on July 8, up from 8.5 per cent on July 1, according to Department for Education statistics.
These include approximately 747,000 children self-isolating due to a possible contact with a Covid-19 case, 35,000 pupils with a suspected case of coronavirus and 39,000 with a confirmed case of Covid-19.
Conservative MP Jonathan Gullis used Tuesday’s education committee meeting to launch a furious attack on the National Education Union, saying it had brought the reputation of teachers into disrepute during the pandemic.
Calling on Mr Courtney of the NEU to resign he said: “I think the NEU has been really out of touch with people throughout the pandemic, I think they have got it wrong, I think they have brought the reputation of teachers into disrepute… There are people telling me that teachers have somehow gone missing in this crisis because the image was that any time there was an issue it was the teaching profession that was moaning and groaning while police officers, fire officers, doctors and nurses were getting on tackling this global pandemic.”
He blamed the NEU for saying teachers should not teach a full timetable or routinely mark work at the start of the pandemic, and for saying teachers should be jabbed first.
Mr Courtney said: “I absolutely disagree with your characterisation of my union. On vaccination we took the same decision that every other education union took.”
He added: “If the government had taken the steps we had recommended there would have been far less disruption of education than there has been…we might not have had the Kent variant.”