MPs call for urgent action to get Covid’s lost children back into school

The Pandemic Response and Recovery All-Party Parliamentary Group is calling for an urgent focus on children’s recovery from the pandemic, prioritising social interactions and wellbeing over the coming months, after hearing from an expert panel on persistent and severe school absence.

Almost two million children and young people are now persistently absent (attendance rate of less than 90%) from school as a direct consequence of school closures and lockdowns. Well over 100,000 are now severely absent, spending more time absent from, than present in, school. The effects on their education and increased risk of suffering abuse, neglect or exploitation can be devastating.

On the panel were Alice Wilcock, from the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) which published the March 2023 report Lost and Not Found revealing the scale of the impact, former Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield CBE, UsforThem founder and children’s rights campaigner Molly Kingsley and Ofsted’s Director of Strategy and Engagement Chris Jones.

Alice Wilcock, Head of Education at the CSJ, first examined the issue of school absence in 2021 with the report Kids can’t catch up if they don’t show up. The report identified a rise in the number of children who were severely absent from school during the first lockdown: “Nearly two million children are now persistently absent from school, however it is the severely absent, what some have described as “ghost children”, who have disengaged from school, that are of particular concern. When we published Kids can’t catch up, the number of severely absent from school, in other words who spend more time outside the classroom than in it, had grown to nearly 100,000 from a pre-lockdown level of around 60,000. The issue has significantly worsened as Lost and Not Found showed and our latest figures suggest 140,000 children are severely absent with the number continuing to grow.

“We worry that severe and persistent absence will carry on rising for years to come due to the impact lockdowns and closures had on babies and toddlers who are gradually starting their education, they and their parents having been denied the early years support they would otherwise have had. We are also worried that the social contract between schools and families has been broken and absence has become endemic in our school system. I was very pleased to give evidence to the Education Committee’s inquiry and our report makes a number of recommendations to the Department for Education, such as attendance mentors and putting more support in schools for parents and families. Much more needs to be done to understand and address the underlying issues.”

Molly Kingsley, who campaigned with UsForThem for the Schools and Educational Settings (Essential Infrastructure and Opening During Emergencies) Bill to be adopted, said: “Schools reopened in March 2021, over two years ago, but for many school life did not simply restart as was expected. The damage had been done by autumn 2020 when the Centre for Social Justice reported how many children were severely absent. As we know, that figure has continued to rise with a staggering one in four children now persistently absent. They are all victims of a devastating government policy that saw English schools closed for longer than any other European country save Italy.

“When government, bowing to unevidenced pressure from advisors and some unions, closed schools nationwide almost overnight, it brought the education of millions of children to a devastating halt. This really cemented the message adults sent children throughout the pandemic that they were a danger to society. Lost and Not Found puts the issue into sharp focus. Nadhim Zahawi admitted that closing schools was a mistake but unless the government follows through with action, such as adopting the Essential Infrastructure Bill, what is to stop schools being closed for the next national emergency and children suffering more avoidable long term harm?”

Anne Longfield CBE, who now chairs the Commission on Young Lives said: “We continue to be reminded of the disastrous impact lengthy lockdowns and school closures had on children and young people, in particular their mental health. The more vulnerable were always at greater risk of falling into a pattern of severe school absence but keeping schools closed for most children for such a long time as part of lockdown policy created an additional group of vulnerable children. These children may be absent from school now but they are still part of our society, which will have to care for those likely to suffer serious mental health issues, abuse or who may be targeted by gangs or become involved in crime as a result.

“The issue is not limited to those more disadvantaged. High achievers too have suffered the effects of having their schools closed, their education curtailed, being locked down by the government and having their life chances diminished. The Education Committee has launched an inquiry into persistent absence and support for disadvantaged pupils but the government must take clear affirmative action to prevent a repeat of this disaster, which it could do in part simply by adopting the Essential Infrastructure Bill.”

Ofsted’s director for strategy and engagement, Chris Jones, said: “Absence from school is one of the most serious issues facing school and trust leaders. Those that have the resources to do so are trying to address the causes, working directly with individual children and their families on a day-to-day basis. And they are working with family hubs, mental health specialists and other professionals to try and alleviate deep-seated anxiety among both children and families.

“Absence is a problem that appears to have been exacerbated by the pandemic. The usual patterns of attendance were broken and children became more used to communicating, socialising and learning online. This could be having a stubborn impact.”

Chairing the meeting, Rt Hon Esther McVey MP said: “A blanket policy of closing schools and educational establishments was not part of pre-covid pandemic planning for good reason. The UK’s Pandemic Preparedness Strategy talked of “possible school closures to disrupt the spread of local disease outbreak, based on public health risk assessment”. Those risk assessments were never done and we must accept and learn from the extent of the damage school closures and lockdowns have caused. Not just to those at school or university at the time but to babies born during lockdown, toddlers isolated along with their parents and the mothers who suffered due to the withdrawal of early years provisions such as health visitors, baby and toddler groups or parks and playgrounds. We cannot ignore the fact that the number of severely and persistently absent children has almost doubled since lockdowns.

“The Department for Education has proposed reforms on attendance, but children keep telling us that it was closing schools and locking them down that did the damage. We must listen to them and prioritise their recovery from the pandemic through social interaction and extracurricular activities. We must also ensure this never happens again and the proposed Essential Infrastructure Bill would help protect young people during another national emergency.”

Attending the meeting, Rt Hon Sir Iain Duncan Smith, was dismayed by what the panel reported: “As a society we badly let our children and young people down throughout the pandemic. We made decisions based around fear and we didn’t think about the consequences which are being felt severely in my own constituency and across the UK.

“The truth is, and the CSJ report shows it quite clearly, we are in the middle of a national disaster. We must recognise we were told it was led by an evidence based policy but it turned out to be short on any understanding of the consequences, instead it is now damaging public health policy. If we can’t get these kids back into school, my worry is that this bow wave now heading through the education system will continue post school and the lost learning will translate into a lost generation who will not be able to support themselves and their families and damage the economy.”

Biography of the speakers:

Alice Wilcock, Head of Education, Centre for Social Justice

Alice leads the Centre for Social Justice’s (CSJ) work on education policy. She joined the Centre for Social Justice in 2018 and has worked on a range of education issues. Her primary focuses include: school absence, children not in school, exclusions and alternative provision. Since 2021, the Centre for Social Justice has been examining the issue of severe absence and attendance post-pandemic. Alice is also a trustee for school attendance charity School-Home Support.

Anne Longfield, CBE, Chair Commission on Young Lives
Anne has spent the last three decades working to improve the life chances of children, particularly the most vulnerable. From March 2015 to February 2021, she was Children’s Commissioner for England. She previously led a national children’s charity and has also worked on the delivery of the Sure Start programme in the Cabinet Office. Anne is a passionate champion for children, influencing and shaping the national debate and policy agenda for children and their families. She spent many years campaigning for better childcare, often at a time when many saw the issue as obscure or niche. As Children’s Commissioner, Anne spent six years championing the rights and interests of children with those in power who make decisions about children’s lives, acting as children’s ‘eyes and ears’ in the corridors of power in Whitehall and Westminster. Anne is also Special Advisor to the Lords Public Services Committee on their inquiry into public services and vulnerable children and is the Independent Chair of the NHS Children and Young People Learning Disability and Autism Board.

Molly Kingsley, Us For Them
Molly is a co-founder of UsForThem, journalist and former lawyer. Together with others in the UsForThem team she has led multiple national political, media and letter writing campaigns advocating for children to be prioritised during the pandemic. She is co-author of The Children's Inquiry, and writes frequently for national print and online media including the Daily Mail, Express, Telegraph and The Critic, and is a regular commentator on issues impacting children.

Chris Jones, Ofsted
Chris is Director, Strategy and Engagement. He oversees the development and implementation of Ofsted’s strategic priorities, its work with government, legal and communications functions, the private office and corporate governance.

Chris previously led Ofsted’s research and evaluation team, and before Ofsted worked in the Department for Education, the Treasury and the Department for Transport in a variety of policy and strategy roles.

View the full minutes for this meeting, held on Monday 24 April 2023.

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