Over 90,000 children were persistently absent during the Autumn term last year, according to a report by the Centre for Social Justice.
During successive lockdowns across 2020-21, charities and organisations working with young people have warned that children who have been missing from formal education settings have become vulnerable to local gangs or dangerous home environments.
Chief Executive of the Centre for Social Justice, Andy Cook, said: “Regularly missing school makes exclusion much more likely. This, in turn, acts as a conveyor belt into the youth justice system and on into the adult prison estate. 59% of prisoners report that they regularly truanted in school while 63% experienced a fixed-term exclusion and 42% were permanently excluded. This is mirrored in the youth justice system where 73% of boys in custody report truanting at some time and 86% say they had been excluded from school before they came to detention.”
“The most likely outcome for many of these children is a grim concoction of economic insecurity, disengagement, and personal turmoil and yet absence and exclusions, official and unofficial, are rising at an alarming rate,” he added.
In their report ‘Kids can’t catch up if they don’t show up,’ the Centre for Social Justice highlights that during the first term back after the pandemic, 93,514 pupils (more than 1 in 80 pupils) were severely absent (absent more than they were present). This compares with 60,244 pupils who were severely absent in the same term in 2019.2 This is a 54.7% increase in the cohort of pupils who are severely absent and equates to an additional 33,270 pupils.
Around one in 60 pupils were severely absent from secondary schools in Autumn 2020, meaning 53,171 pupils were absent more often than they were present. This figure has grown by 34.4% since Autumn term 2019.
In primary schools, the rate of pupils who were severely absent has more than doubled in a year. In Autumn 2020, 0.89% of pupils in primary school were severely absent compared with 0.42% the year before meaning 34,405 primary school pupils were absent more often than they were present.
In special schools, the rate of severe absence was even higher. Around 1 in 20 pupils are absent more often than they are present with the figure rising by 16.9% over the course of the pandemic.
The report also highlights that:
“Returning from the pandemic, the attendance of pupils in alternative provision has remained stark. In Autumn 2020, the absence rate for pupils in AP stood at 31.0%. Attendance in these schools has always been lower than in the mainstream, but when APs are only operating at two thirds attendance you are storing up serious problems,” said Andy Cook. “For example, they have long been a recruiting ground for gangs. Children in alternative provision are six times more likely to be in a gang and there were already 27,000 children in gangs prior to lockdown. It would be little more than naïve hope to think that the absences we are seeing will not make the picture even more bleak.”
The pandemic has made the picture worse for the most vulnerable pupils over the last year, he adds.
“It could potentially be years before we see the impact on our support services and prisons, but the headline figures we do have make for grim reading and should embolden us to urgent and immediate action,” said Andy Cook.
Furthermore, it is now estimated that there are a further 20,000 children who have disappeared off school registers altogether during lockdown. Home schooling has been a contentious area for some time. Some parents may want to home school their children due to a specific need, or a philosophical or theological difference with the mainstream system. But there has long been concerns that it is also used to ‘off-roll’ a significant number of difficult students.
“These children are anonymous. Neither the Department for Education, nor local authorities track who or where these children are, but the best estimates say there are now 75,000 of them, up a staggering 38% in the last year,” said Andy Cook.
He warns that while the government has earmarked considerable sums of money for a ‘catchup’ programme for children who have missed out on education over the last year, “they won’t benefit from tutoring programmes at schools they don’t attend, and they won’t turn up to extra-curricular classes when they don’t turn up to the mandated classes”.
The Centre for Social Justice states that there is a strong existing evidence base for key workers engaging with families who need the most support, and this should be replicated to reduce the absence rate following the pandemic.
It highlights that School-Home Support (SHS) has adopted the key worker model directly to improve school attendance and employs ‘practitioners’ to work with families on addressing the underlying causes of poor school attendance. Demand for its services increased four-fold in 2020. As a result, 71% of pupils in mainstream schools improved their attendance - equivalent to 14 extra days in school - and 89% in alternative educational settings seeing improved attendance - equivalent to 18 extra days in school.
“The government should appoint 2,000 school attendance mentors to work with children who are persistently absent from school and alternative provision. At a unit cost of £40,000 plus infrastructure costs, it is likely to require funding of almost £100m per year for a period of three years,” the report concludes.