The 'ghost children': Thousands are missing school - and COVID made the problem worse

Thousands of children are not attending school and the problem has been made worse by the pandemic, according to official figures.

Numbers just released by the Department for Education show that school absence remains at crisis levels and there are now calls for ministers to take urgent action.

In Autumn 2022, 125,222 pupils were away from the classroom more often than not, compared to 60,244 in Autumn 2019.

While the figures show an improvement on last year, the absence rate is nearly double what it was before the pandemic.

Local councils blame funding problems for not being able to keep track of missing pupils well enough.

Despite the government spending more on education since 2019, rising costs and soaring inflation have cancelled out any funding increase.

The law requires all children of school age to receive suitable full-time education, but last year around 140,000 children were never in class. That is up by 137% since the pandemic.

Cllr Louise Gittins, chair of the children and young people board for the Local Government Association (LGA), said: "We have long raised with government that councils lack the powers to ensure that children who are missing school don't slip through the net.

"Under the current arrangements, children not in school are invisible to councils and the services that keep them safe.

The LGA is now calling for the government to introduce a register for absent children.

In response, the government has identified key areas of England where high rates of absence need to be tackled.

Nine new so-called attendance hubs will support 600 primary schools to improve pupils' attainment and welfare in areas of the country with highest levels of pupil absence.

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The expansion of the current attendance mentors programme, delivered by children's charity Barnardo's, will see trained mentors work directly with 1,665 persistently and severely absent children and their families across Knowsley, Doncaster, Stoke-on-Trent and Salford.

Schools minister Nick Gibb said: "Though pupil attendance is continuing to recover, the pandemic has still had a real impact on pupil absence in school.

"We're expanding some of our most important attendance measures - including the attendance hubs and mentoring programmes, to ensure children have the best chance of receiving a high-quality education."

But Joe Shalam, policy director of thinktank the Centre for Social Justice, which first identified the spectre of so-called "ghost children", whose numbers have increased by 108% since the onset of the pandemic, says the government needs to do more.

"It is an appalling fact that the number of pupils missing more of school than they are attending has more than doubled since before the pandemic.

"Rather than re-announcing existing schemes set to reach 1% of severely absent pupils at most, we need now to see the government taking serious and accelerated action reflective of the fact there were over 125,000 so-called 'ghost children' at the last count.

"Enormous damage is being done to their educational prospects and their chances of securing qualifications that will open the door to a university or college place and a well-paid job.

"The country is also suffering. Britain's labour market desperately needs legions of well-qualified young people to take it forward in the coming decades. None of this will happen if we wind up creating a lost generation who have simply dropped out of the education system."

Some schools are now turning to charities to help provide support workers to make sure children get to school - a role traditionally paid for by councils.

Oasis Academy Aspinall in east Manchester is working with charity Home School Support to provide key workers whose job it is to build up relationships with struggling families.

Deputy principal Matt Foster says they need help.

"A lot of agencies around us have suffered a lot of cuts. So we have to plug the gap somehow," he said.

"And with current state of funding it is something we will be looking to do more of because councils do not get enough money to provide the support that they once provided."