Beth Prescott is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Social Justice
The Prime Minister said in his Conference speech that education was “the closest thing we have to a silver bullet”. But it will do absolutely nothing for the 140,000 so-called ‘Ghost Children’ severely absent from school. Children cannot catch up if they do not show up.
The latest government figures, for the Spring term of 2023, reveal that severe absence has returned to record highs. More than twice as many children are severely absent compared to pre-pandemic levels, with 140,000 children now absent more than they are present.
More than 2 years since the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) first identified the post-COVID spike in school absence, the Government has yet to grasp the nettle. While ministers have begun to get a grip on persistent absence, the danger is that severe absence is becoming entrenched with severe social and economic consequences for years to come.
Our analysis shows that children in receipt of Free School Meals are three times more likely to be severely absent than their more affluent classmates, meaning elevated absence levels will serve to compound disadvantage. After a period of sustained progress pre-pandemic, the attainment gap between disadvantaged students and their peers has reached its widest level in more than a decade.
Young people with a track record of severe absence are vastly over-represented in the cohort of those not in employment, education, or training (NEET). Persistently absent pupils are around three times more likely than their peers to go on to commit a crime within two years of leaving school.
While the latest data does show a welcome decrease in persistent absence, progress shouldn’t be overstated. There were still nearly 1.5 million children persistently absent in Spring term 2023, the equivalent of 1-in-5 children. That severe absence is increasing even as persistent absence falls suggests that the attendance crisis is crystallising around a particularly vulnerable group of children facing the biggest barriers to attendance.
The Government has taken some welcome steps, with the Secretary of State for Education saying school absence is her first priority, and the piloting of an Attendance Mentors scheme. But this is set to reach just one per cent of severely absent children; pupils who entered lockdown in Year 7 will be finishing Year 11 by the time the pilot concludes.
If we are to end the absence crisis, we need urgent and sustained action starting with the nationwide rollout of 2,000 attendance mentors to work with children, families, and schools to grapple with the underlying causes of absence. Attendance guidance should also be made statutory, ending inconsistencies in the delivery of attendance support. And the Government should fast track its commitment to roll out Mental Health Support Teams to all schools by 2027/28.