Parents warned: Schools to install truancy officers as 124,000 children taken out of class

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Robert Halfon, Chair of the Commons Education Committee, said many of the 124,000 missing pupils have simply never come back to school after being kept away during Covid-19 lockdowns. Government proposals to deal with the problem do not go far enough, he said.

The MP, who has raised his concerns with Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, wants schools to recruit staff who will visit parents and ensure children attend lessons.

A Schools White Paper published last week includes plans for a register of missing children, which Ministers say will help ensure no child is lost from the system. Mr Halfon said: “I support the register but it isn’t going to bring those pupils back to school.

“What is needed is schools engaging with parents.

“124,000 children have not returned to school in total. These ‘ghost children’ have not returned to school after the pandemic.

“What we need are field workers reaching out to parents to bring children back to school.”

He said schools could employ additional staff using “catch up” funding provided by the Government to help pupils make up for education lost during Covid lockdowns.

“My view is that schools can use catch-up funds to appoint field workers to engage with parents and bring these children back to school.

“The Secretary of State should have a computer on his desk which shows every school in the country where pupils are absent, and how many there are.”

A study by Children’s Commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza, the Government-appointed watchdog for children, found 124,000 pupils missed more than half of school sessions in the Autumn 2021 term.

She wrote to every local council in England to find out what information they held on children falling through the gaps in the system. It emerged that many authorities do not know how many children in their area are missing school, being educated at home or are out of education altogether, and some don’t even know how many children are in their area.

She warned some children had “fallen off the radar” before the pandemic, but said there were other children who haven’t come back after lockdowns.

Last night she said: “While most children attend school every day, there are tens, even hundreds, of thousands who are persistently or severely absent, and more missing from education altogether, for all sorts of reasons.

“This is why I launched my attendance audit to understand better where those children are and what barriers there are to them getting back to school. I am convinced the best way of securing the future for every child is to for them to learn in school.”

She added: “Since it’s hard to catch up lost learning if you aren’t in school it does make some sense to consider flexibility in catch up funding spending as part of that support if it’s appropriate for the individual child.”

The Commissioner’s office is currently conducting a more detailed study into the problem, which will report later in the year.

The Government’s Schools White Paper, part of the Queen’s Speech delivered last week, includes a range of measures designed to improve attendance. The proposed register for children not in school is designed to help local authorities and teachers identify pupils who need support.

Other measures include requiring every school to publish a clear attendance policy and introducing legislation to ensure every school tracks attendance.

Schools faced unprecedented disruption during the Covid-19 pandemic. In England, they were closed for most children from March 2020 to the end of August, and closed again in January 2021 until March that year.

The Commons Education Committee has described this as “nothing short of a national disaster for children and young people” and a study by the Department for Education found pupils in some parts of the country fell almost six months behind.

The Government has provided £5 billion in what it calls catch up funding. This includes funding for summer schools, teacher training and a “recovery premium” paid directly to schools.

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