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27 October 2023

The crisis of Scotland’s ghost children

Freedom of information requests reveal how school attendance has plummeted since lockdown.

By Chris Deerin

Lockdown, that odd, receding caesura in the normal run of things, affected us all, and continues to do so – habits formed during the period remain unbroken, work practices have changed, mental health issues continue to loom.

Those of us with school-age children have also had to deal with the consequences for them. For too many kids, socialisation was set back, loneliness became a problem, and their confidence was damaged. Perhaps the main evidence that this is an ongoing issue can be seen in education, where we are faced with what is turning into a long-term problem.

The think tank Reform Scotland, of which I am director, published a report yesterday (26 October) setting out one particularly alarming example of Covid’s legacy among our young.

Absent Minds”, compiled through freedom of information requests to local authorities, reveals that nearly a third of children are missing an average of one school day per fortnight, while one in eight are missing a day a week. Among secondary school pupils the figures are even worse: almost 20 per cent miss a day each week, with 40 per cent absent a day per fortnight – this includes the key years during which they sit the exams that will do much to determine their future prospects. 

A regional breakdown of the figures catches the eye, too. Half of high school pupils miss a day every fortnight in Dundee, East Ayrshire, North Ayrshire, North Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire, compared with a quarter or less in East Dunbartonshire, Highland, South Lanarkshire and Stirling.

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Since lockdown ended, absence has risen across all four territories that make up the UK, but the issue pre-dates Covid in Scotland at least. In 2017-18, the number of pupils missing a day per fortnight was already high, at 136,074, or 22 per cent. In 2021-22 it was 232,098, or 34 per cent.

School attendance in Scotland is, in law at least, compulsory. As the Scottish government says, “Attending and taking part in learning – wherever learning takes place – is fundamental to making sure that our young people become successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors and responsible situations.”

[See also: Why did Nicola Sturgeon fail her own education mission?]

It’s hard to see how this worthy goal can possibly be achieved if children are missing such a large amount of schooling. Keir Bloomer, who chairs Reform Scotland’s Commission on School Reform, a group of education experts, warns that “school absence is a matter of national importance and should be treated as such. Children who miss a large proportion of school time are less likely to attain and less likely to form good relationships, as well as being disruptive to the family environment at home and the learning environment in class.”

He adds that “school education is the most important driver of individual and national success, and it is time we recognised these links. In a particularly alarming trend, the absence problem gets worse as children get older, with two in five children of exam age missing an average of a day’s school every fortnight. It is impossible for a child to reach their full potential with this level of absence, and we must collectively grasp this problem before more damage is done.”

The causes of rising absence are likely to involve mental health issues, family disruption, trauma, but also, after lockdown, a broken habit of simply turning up. What also worries me is that the issue might be even worse than it appears – teachers talk of the practice of “lapping”, where pupils go to school, register, but then spend the day wandering the corridors rather than attending class.

Jenny Gilruth, the Scottish Education Secretary, has promised to raise the issue when she next meets Cosla, the collective body of Scotland’s local councils. She needs to get a shift on, and to treat the subject as the priority it deserves to be. To properly understand what’s going on, we need a full investigation into the reasons children are taking so much time off, and why in so many cases their parents are letting them. How are different councils addressing the issue, given the wide regional disparity in statistics? How do absence levels compare across the family income range, as well as across sex, ethnicity and neurodiversity? And is central government providing the necessary data and support to enable a national effort to address this crisis?

The SNP government’s approach to education has been lacking in far too many areas over the years. Problems in the curriculum and in the way Scotland’s schools are run, in kowtowing to vested interests that value the producer above the consumer, should long ago have been addressed. Instead they have been allowed to fester. 

Now it appears that, whenever it suits them, many children have just decided to stop going to school, and that their parents are happy to go along with it. If all the previous evidence about educational decline has failed to snap the SNP into action, perhaps this might be the one that ministers simply can’t ignore. It should be.

[See also: The man behind Humza Yousaf’s new strategy]

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