There has been a big increase in children in England missing large amounts of school – on top of disruption from Covid, warns a report.
More than 90,000 pupils missed over half their lessons in the autumn term, said the Centre for Social Justice.
They could be “extremely vulnerable to being picked up by gangs”, said think tank founder Sir Iain Duncan Smith.
The report warned these children would struggle to ever catch up when they were so “severely absent”.
“Gangs have used lockdowns for recruitment drives,” says the report, with a strong link between those who end up in youth custody and those who have been persistently absent from school.
The research, looking at pupils missing school in autumn 2020, showed a wider negative impact on attendance during the pandemic – beyond those sent home or shielding because of Covid outbreaks.
‘Lost to schools’
The number who were absent from school more often than they were present had risen to almost 94,000 from over 60,000 in the previous year, in figures that removed those absent because of Covid.
Frank Young, the think tank’s political director, said it was a “major problem with kids who are more likely to be on the streets than they are in the classroom”.
“We need to get a grip on this fast before these children become lost to schools.”
He suggested the increase might reflect the disruption of the lockdowns and intensifying pressures on some families in the pandemic, including mental health issues or addictions.
The report said that missing so much school could put young people on a “conveyor belt” to poor job opportunities, social problems and greater risk of getting involved in crime.
Being out of school also left them out of touch with the government’s catch-up tutoring plans, warned the report.
Some of this catch-up funding could be used for key workers to engage with families of children missing school, argued the think tank.
‘Off the registers’
There have been worries about rising numbers being sent home from school again because of Covid – with figures last week showing the highest level of Covid-related absences since schools reopened in March.
Adding to the concerns are another 20,000 pupils estimated to have “disappeared off school registers” during the pandemic, said the report.
These could be part of a growth in home educated children – with suggestions of 75,000 now being educated out of school.
There are no official figures for how many pupils are being home educated – and last week Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said plans for a register were “imminent”.
Conservative MP Sir Iain Duncan Smith said it was an “appalling truth” that the report showed so many children were missing so much school.
“We need to urgently make sure these children are returned to the classroom as part of government catch-up plans. There’s no catch-up without children in class,” said Sir Iain.
A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “Where students have to self-isolate, schools are continuing to provide high-quality remote education, and through our ambitious and long-term education recovery plan, we have committed over £3bn to date to help children and young people make up for lost education during the pandemic.”