Up to 10,000 pupils missed an entire term of school last autumn, according to new analysis that estimates 128,000 children were withdrawn from state education in England in the year up to the January 2021 lockdown.
The figures, based on data from schools collated by the education research group FFT Education Datalab, comes as the government wants new measures to boost attendance, while Rachel de Souza, the children’s commissioner for England, has vowed to track down missing children.
But FFT found that the number of children being taken off school rolls was no different from years prior to the pandemic, with most being home-schooled, moving to private schools or to other parts of the UK or overseas, soothing fears that the pandemic had caused a surge in children being permanently taken out of school.
FFT looked at attendance data from the rolls of more than 5,200 primary schools and 2,600 secondary schools – a third of the total state schools in England – and found that about 0.2% of children enrolled at the same school throughout last term did not attend a single session between September and the end of 2021.
“These sorts of proportions would suggest something in the order of 10,000 pupils on the roll of schools who did not attend at all in the autumn term,” the analysis, by the FFT’s Dave Thompson, states.
In total, 86,000 children who were on school rolls for at least a month in the autumn term were classed as “severely absent” after missing at least half of their time in school, including those absent because of illness.
Those most likely to be counted as severely absent were pupils with special educational needs. Children with an educational health and care plan (EHCP) were many times more likely to have missed half of school in autumn compared with other pupils across all age groups.
While politicians and de Souza have expressed alarm at the numbers of pupils withdrawn from school rolls during the pandemic, the data suggests that the overall numbers are similar to previous years.
The FFT figures show that more than 128,000 children out of the nearly seven million of compulsory school age had been withdrawn from state school rolls in the year to January 2021 – slightly below the 129,000 withdrawn in the year to January 2020, before the start of the pandemic, and the same proportion as withdrew in the year to January 2019.
Of the 128,000, 57,000 are estimated to now be home-educated, according to the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, while a further 10,000 to 20,000 will have moved from the state sector to independent or private schools.
The remaining 50,000 children may have rejoined schools in other parts of the UK, most likely Scotland or Wales, or moved overseas with their families.
Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary, said he wants to “end the postcode lottery of how attendance is managed in different schools and parts of the country”, with a new duty for schools to publish their plans to improve attendance.
Schools are also being asked to join a new data collection trial that will share daily attendance status for each pupil with the Department for Education.
The DfE also said it “remains committed to a registration system for children not in school” and plans to publish a formal response shortly.