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‘Ghost children’ kept off school and made to work amid cost of living crisis

MPs were told of the plight of “ghost children” absent from school after the Covid pandemic  (PA Wire)
MPs were told of the plight of “ghost children” absent from school after the Covid pandemic (PA Wire)

Children as young as 14 are increasingly being kept off school and pushed into work in the cost-of-living crisis, MPs were warned on Tuesday.

The Commons education committee was told of the plight of “ghost children” as the social contract between some families, to attend school to get an education, had been “fractured” by the Covid pandemic.

High energy costs were also leaving some parents struggling to ensure children had clean school uniforms which was fuelling truancy.

Headteachers in London and the wider South East continue to see problems of persistent absenteeism many months after the end of the pandemic.

The Canterbury Academy in Kent told the MPs that the attendance gap between youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds (those eligible for the pupil premium), and those who were not, was 7.8 per cent.

There had been a “clear increase” in persistent absenteeism among the pupil premium group, it added.

The impact was “greatest in year 11 (15 to 16-year-olds), pupils whose education was disrupted during the particularly socially formative years in year 8 and 9,” it explained.

Factors causing persistent absences among children from these less well off households included parental attitude.

“Our school notices family patterns among white working-class families, involving anti-school attitudes and a rush to engage children (particularly boys) in working and earning from around age 14,” it said.

“The urgency to work has been heightened by the cost-of-living crisis.”

Others factors were:

  • Pupil mental health. While post Covid school non-attendance had “somewhat normalised among families”, post-Covid school avoidance contributed three per cent of overall persistent absence.

  • Long waits for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, of more than two years and heading towards three, were making it harder for families to engage with education.

Lynn Perry, chief executive of children’s charity Barnardo’s, told The Standard: “We are very concerned to hear about young people being absent from school due to a demand to enter the workforce.

“We don’t have data on whether this is widespread, but our recent Yougov polling of 1,000 parents in February showed that one in four were struggling to provide sufficient food for their child and one in seven have fallen into arrears or gone into their overdraft.

“In this context it doesn’t come as a surprise that some young people are feeling the pressure to bring money in.”

Dame Rachel de Souza, Children’s Commissioner for England, stressed: “The reasons a child might not be attending school are complex, as the evidence from this Trust indicates, which is why it is so important that the right support is identified to get every child back into the classroom.

“Attendance is everyone’s business, meaning that all the adults in a child’s life have a responsibility to making sure they are in school, every day, ready to learn and go on to successful careers later in life.”

Ofsted told the Commons inquiry, which was hearing evidence from experts today, that since the pandemic eased initial high levels of absenteeism had fallen, but there were still concerns about a smaller number of persistent absentees.

The watchdog added: “For a minority of families, the social contract around schooling – attendance in return for education – has become fractured, perhaps tested by periods of lockdown.

“It is vital that all parents commit to full attendance for their children.”

It also stressed that some parents needed help to get the “right perspective and balance” after the pandemic “and avoid an overly risk-averse approach to keeping children out of school”.

Ofsted added that total pupils’ absence fell from 11.7 per cent in autumn of 2020 to 8.5 per cent in autumn 2021, with 1.6 per cent still of the 8.5 per cent attributed to COVID circumstances. This is down from seven per cent in autumn 2020

However, the absence rate is still much higher than in autumn 2019, when it was 4.9 per cent.

Reconnect London, a group of headteachers and trust leaders who came together to share expertise during the pandemic, stressed that in most cases, absence from school is linked to genuine illness such as seasonal flu.

But it said mental health was another “significant” cause of poor attendance and persistent absence, including faced by pupils, but also in some cases other family members.

“In some families, inability to afford clean school uniform, either because of the cost of the items or an inability to launder clothing as a result of high energy costs,” was cited as another factor.

Other causes include ongoing physical health issues, including those pupils with acute or chronic health issues, location issues where families have moved away from the area and face a longer journey to school, for some pupils “difficulty re-establishing the habit of attending school every day after the pandemic”, a “weakening of the sense of

obligation” in some families in relation to daily school attendance, and a “hesistance” among parents to send younger children to school with coughs and colds following the pandemic.

The Long Covid Kids charity emphasised that the latest ONS Survey (released February, relating to December 2022) revealed that there are 58,000 children and young people with Long Covid across the UK, with symptoms lasting at least four weeks after the acute phase of the disease.

“More worryingly, 40,000 of those have been ill for at least 12 months,” it told the MPs.

“We have many children and young people using our support services who have been chronically unwell for nearly three years.

“Many of these children tell us that they are unable to attend school full time or to attend at all. Many of them are unable to access alternative provision.”