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Searching for the “ghost children” missing from schools

Terri White’s new BBC series examines the impact of lockdowns on the children told to “stay at home”, when home was not safe.

By Rachel Cunliffe

I kept having to take breaks from Terri White’s new series for BBC 5 Live. Halfway through episode one, I burst into tears in the open-plan New Statesman office. “I’m reviewing Terri White: Finding Britain’s Ghost Children,” I explained to concerned colleagues. They understood immediately.

This five-part investigation looks into the impact lockdown school closures had on the most vulnerable children in our society. The children who were told to “stay at home”, when home was the least safe place imaginable. The children, up to 100,000 of them, who have still not returned to the classroom, three years after schools first closed. The children who have disappeared – or, in extreme cases, died.

White, a journalist who used to edit Empire magazine and regularly writes for the NS, has a personal stake in this story. She speaks frankly of her own childhood, in which she was physically and sexually abused by her mother’s various partners. School was her sanctuary, the one place she felt safe and able to be herself. When Boris Johnson announced that schools would close in 2020, she was “terrified” for children like her. 

This is not an easy programme to listen to. Episode one covers the heartbreaking murder of the six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes in June 2020, following months of violence and neglect at the hands of his father and stepmother which went unnoticed by authorities. Members of Arthur’s extended family tried to raise the alarm, to no avail. His uncle was threatened with arrest if he tried to visit his nephew, as doing so would have meant breaking lockdown rules.

How many other children faced similar abuse during the pandemic? How many of those currently missing, who have vanished from school, are facing it still? And why is there no serious effort to find them? “There’s a crisis amongst kids that we all need to be talking about,” White says. We need to be doing more than talking. It’s a travesty that this series needed to be made at all. But the least we can do is listen to it, however harrowing that may be.

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Terri White: Finding Britain’s Ghost Children
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[See also: The unbearable complacency of the Today programme]

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This article appears in the 29 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special