While schools are back after Easter more than a million children won’t be attending, as education campaigners today lift the lid on a national scandal which reveals the extent of Britain’s failing education system.
Freedom of Information requests to all 153 education authorities revealed a chaotic mess of spiralling budgets, flawed data and disillusioned parents as more than 1.2 million children fail to regularly attend school.
Just as worryingly, education bosses have no idea how much the problem is costing the taxpayer and have consistently ignored solutions to help children classed as ‘persistently absent’ to get back into learning – criminalising parents with fines instead of tackling the problem.
Online school Minerva’s Virtual Academy (MVA) has teamed up with two not-for-profit organisations, Square Peg and Not Fine in School, to raise the issues which are keeping young people out of the classroom and highlight the solutions available.
Its Class of 10,000 campaign, which aims to get 10,000 children currently missing out on full time education back into learning, shockingly reveals that many education authorities do not hold figures for the number of pupils classed as persistently absent – those with an attendance record of 90% or below.
Kent takes the unenviable title of worst performing LEA, with 27,334 persistently absent pupils, followed by Essex (22,950), Birmingham (21,881), Hampshire (19,731) and Lancashire (19,553).
And while fines for truanting have left parents with a bill totalling £7m a year, the cost of managing persistent absence is estimated at £75m.
Hugh Viney, who founded MVA during the COVID-19 pandemic and now teaches children online from over 40 countries, said while there were many reasons for non-attendance there was no reason to not deal with the growing problem.
“What our detailed research shows is that while there is a national scandal unfolding in front of our eyes, the very people tasked with solving it are sticking their heads in the sand,” he said.
“Very few authorities know where these children are or why they’re not in school, and they think that slapping their parents with a fine is a reasonable solution. But that’s clearly not solving a problem which is growing by the day.”
Hugh said there are 1.67 million children and young people who are facing barriers to attendance at school, with reasons ranging from anxiety and mental health difficulties, through to complex additional needs.
“Mainstream schools aren’t suitable for every pupil,” he continued. “Many young people thrive in a traditional school environment but, for a significant proportion, a bricks and mortar setting simply cannot meet their needs. Homeschooling during the pandemic highlighted this issue.
“That is what has driven us to start this campaign. We know from experience that online schooling can help many of these children, but the government and many local education authorities are reluctant to go down that route. We want to try and help 10,000 children back into education through dialogue with local authorities – that is just 1% of the estimated number of children who are currently missing out.”
Dr. Beth Bodycote at Not Fine In School said: “Our education system has remained largely unchanged for decades despite the significant differences that we have seen in just one generation – in technology, politics, social justice, and more.
“The statistics on school absences shows the current system simply isn’t working for increasing numbers of children, their families, school leaders or teaching staff. We need to have a grown up conversation about how we address these issues, and what part alternative provisions to ‘mainstream’ schools can play.”
Ellie Costello, Director of Square Peg said: “The Government’s solution to attendance barriers that children and their families face is to criminalise parents. This does not solve the problems or remove the causes of the barriers. We know that the most vulnerable families are at risk from these cruel and discriminatory punitive measures, with research showing such prosecutions are a “gendered offence” with mothers disproportionately affected.”