21st February, 2022 11:49 am
- ‘Ghost children’ are youngsters who dropped off school registers in lockdown
- It emerged 100,000 children who were at school before Covid failed to go back
- The news came after Arthur Labinjo-Hughes’s father and stepmother were jailed
- Report found over 700 schools were missing an entire class-worth of children
Before the pandemic, 13-year-old Noah had a perfect attendance record at his South London comprehensive school.
His single mother drummed into him her motto for a decent life: ‘Keep the house clean. Do your homework.’
He was good at science and she hoped if he studied hard he might become a pharmacist, or even a doctor, one day. Then lockdown hit.
The woman in front of me nervously adjusts the red and yellow beads at her wrist, her face worn with worry, as she described to me what happened next.
She lost her cleaning job — the family’s only source of income — and suddenly she had three children at home who needed to be fed and her gas and electricity bills shot up.
Online learning from the school never materialised, nor did food support promised for low-income families.
‘Then Noah decides he has to be the man of the house,’ she said, sadly.
It was a fateful decision. Noah, the eldest of her children, but still very much a little boy, switched to drug dealing to help his mother out financially: he’d buy a consignment of cannabis, and sell it on at a profit.
The results were predictable: being so young and small — he hadn’t even hit puberty — he was easy prey for bigger boys and he was robbed. He ended up owing £9,000 to the main drug dealer on his estate — a death sentence.
In the end, his mother had no choice but to beg funds to send him to her family village in Uganda. She misses him terribly, but it was the only way to keep him alive. She hopes it might be safe for him to return to Britain in four or five years.
Excised from the education system, Noah became one of the UK’s epidemic of ‘ghost children’ — youngsters who dropped off school registers and out of sight during lockdown.
The term ‘ghost children’ — defined as those who miss more than half their school sessions — was first used at the end of last year, when it emerged that 100,000 youngsters who had been at school before the pandemic have failed to make it back into the classroom.
Robert Halfon, chairman of the Commons education committee, told MPs these were children ‘who are lost in the system and who haven’t returned to school for the most time, who are subject to potential safeguarding hazards, county lines gangs, online harm and, of course, awful domestic abuse’.
Poignantly, the revelation came shortly after six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes’s father and stepmother were jailed for his manslaughter and murder respectively after a campaign of torture.
Signed off by social workers shortly before his death in June 2020, who knows what the outcome might have been if the little boy had continued to go to school, rather than being isolated at home?
Then, last month, Lost But Not Forgotten, the hard-hitting report into the issue from the Centre For Social Justice, pointed out that over 700 schools were now missing an entire class-worth of children.
Inevitably, a certain percentage of young people have always played truant: 15 years ago, in a seminal series for this newspaper, I spent ten months talking to adolescents, parents, teachers and community workers as I investigated a plague of antisocial behaviour that was gripping Britain, and failing so many black Caribbean and white working-class boys.
I befriended four members of a South London gang who, at the age of 15, hung around on the streets drug dealing and committing crime. I tried my best to change their lives, not with much success. They have been in and out of prison ever since at great expense to the state and themselves.
Sadly, I can only assume a similar fate awaits today’s army of ghost children — but now on an unprecedented scale and at an unimaginable cost.
After all, the link between being out of education and crime is clear: according to the Ministry of Justice, 90 per cent of young offenders and 59 per cent of prisoners regularly truanted from school.
It will come as little surprise to learn that the most vulnerable young people are most likely to become ghost children.
According to the Lost But Not Forgotten report, pupils on free school meals are over three times more likely to be missing. Over a quarter of children in Pupil Referral Units have become ghost children.
Yet they can also reside among the high achieving middle classes: one teacher from an all-girls school in a leafy suburb in the South-East and rated outstanding by Ofsted told me 30 per cent of her pupils now only turn up intermittently. Thirty have actually gone missing. Two have committed suicide.
Depressingly, Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector, warns the authorities have ‘no handle’ on these missing children, where they are or what they are doing.
Ghost children may be phantoms to school, children’s services and even their own families. But they are very much flesh and blood to the toxic figures who prey on them — gangs and online abusers.
They are very much flesh and blood when they hit the criminal justice system, or their bodies are found stabbed in the local park, or as they wither away in bedrooms.
In a major two-part investigation for the Mail, I wanted to understand how our young people have dropped off the radar in such large numbers.
I spoke to headteachers, children, parents and those who work with them such as counsellors, charities and youth workers to try to get to the bottom of what’s caused the problem and where the solutions might lie.
Lockdown was always going to have a major impact on young people. Activities that provided a framework and gave meaning and pleasure to young lives, vanished. Schools, colleges, sports and youth clubs shut down.
As one headmaster admitted to me: ‘We asked kids to show way more resilience than we had the right to expect at their stage of life.’
Most children, with support, managed to find a way through but the huge numbers of ghost children suggests that many were unable to cope — and were badly let down by those who should have supported them.
What’s clear is that it starts with schools. Their role was vital. Again and again young people made it clear to me that how they survived the pandemic depended on how much contact they had with their school. And how much they felt teachers cared.
As one head said to me: ‘School is a safe haven and children are very fragile without it. Two years might seem like nothing to us. But for them, it was vital years of maturing they have missed out on.’
There have always been good and bad schools, but the divide turned into a chasm during the pandemic.
The figures are stark: 82 per cent of secondary school pupils attending private school and 64 per cent of students at good state schools received active help and online classes. This compares to just 47 per cent of the poorest fifth of families.
Head teachers, and the culture they encouraged during lockdown was key.
As one admitted to me: ‘Many schools weren’t doing very much of anything from the head downwards. They just photocopied work sheets, sent them out and ticked boxes.’
Ed Vainker, co-founder of Reach Academy Feltham in West London told me he started preparing early before the first lockdown, after seeing what was happening in other countries.
The school trained teachers to make and record lessons and checked that every child had a computer and a place to work.
On the Thursday, schools were told to close. That following Monday, ‘we had put out four hours of online learning’. Ninety-five per cent of his pupils logged in.
Compare that Herculean effort to the apparently lackadaisical attitude of Vic Goddard, principal of Passmores Academy, the school made famous by the reality-TV show Educating Essex.
In June 2020, he told a newspaper his white, working-class pupils will be ‘at such a disadvantage [in terms of lost learning] compared with private-school kids who have had full virtual timetables’.
Despite that, he admitted: ‘We are not setting any compulsory lessons and nothing online.’
All his hapless pupils appeared to receive were booklets of work and the odd challenge, ‘such as cooking a meal for their family’.
It was the same with teachers. Many went above and beyond — but some abandoned their pupils completely.
The head of one charity told me three teachers he knew had spent lockdown abroad. One cheerfully admitted to him she attended staff meetings on Zoom once a fortnight — making sure to draw the shutters against the bright, giveaway sunshine.
‘She said: ‘The kids don’t turn up to online lessons so why should I care? I love lockdown. I’m in a great place and being paid to do nothing.’
In contrast, Ed Vainker set high standards for his teachers. ‘We expected staff to work a full day from home. We had a staff meeting at 8am.
‘Kids had to complete their work and upload it by 2.30pm. Between 2.30 to 4pm, teaching assistants corrected the work and returned it to the students. Our kids knew they were being held in mind and being engaged.’
They were not going to be forgotten. At the end of the pandemic his school has lost only one child — and that was to home learning.
Of course, the culture in a school only goes so far. To keep children feeling engaged during lockdown you need the technology to pull off successful online learning.
In this respect the gulf between private schools, who were often setting homework online before the pandemic, and state schools was often stark. Once again, those most in need were hit the hardest.
Lorraine Bliss described the challenges her facility faced. St Edmunds’ Society is an inspiring Norwich-based charity that provides alternative education and vocational skills to 16 to 18-year-olds who have emerged from mainstream education with no qualifications.
At the start of lockdown, as a secondary provider, they were not given any computers by Government.
‘We were posting workbooks and the kids had to fill them in and post them back. A bit of a nightmare — and expensive on postage.’
When they did eventually manage to provide computers to their students, ‘if they did not have parents or older siblings, it was a challenge. We had to guide them over the phone. They had no idea how to use them’.
While her team did its best to keep in contact with the young people, many didn’t, whether through lack of resources or motivation.
She said her staff visited ‘even if only to chat on the doorstep’ (a contrast to schools in their area that refused to carry out home visits) called constantly and delivered food packages weekly to those in need.
Overall, a shocking 1,600 Norfolk children have been lost from the education system, new figures have revealed, with the number of ghost children more than doubling during the pandemic.
The figures put Norfolk in the top ten local authorities in the country for such absences. Despite all its efforts, St-Eds still lost 12 students from a roll of 169.
‘Some of them are from the traveller community,’ explains Lorraine Bliss. ‘The generations traditionally live together and our students worried about giving Covid to grandparents.’
Those young people have not returned.
Before the pandemic, schools knew about pupils who were in care or in touch with social services.
But lockdown meant new groups of children suddenly needing support ‘all completely off the radar,’ says Dr Iain MacRitchie, founder and chair of MCR, a mentoring charity for disadvantaged children based in Scotland but now expanding elsewhere in the UK.
He added this new cohort was three times the size of those already known to the schools.
And this larger group was at particular risk of turning into ghost children.
Before Covid, nobody knew about them because they were at school five days a week. School attendance took the pressure off their just-about-coping families.
But in lockdown these families disintegrated under the stress and costs of having children at home full time.
As things went wrong with these hidden families, it was very difficult for schools to spot because the only interaction was often online.
Jan Appleton, director of Eagle’s Nest, a charity which provides alternative education in Burton-on-Trent, points out that, over lockdown, referrals to social services tumbled. ‘A child in trouble had to be very brave to message a teacher online,’ she said.
Before lockdown, a teacher might notice a child looked sad and check up on them. ‘That was totally lost during lockdown,’ Jan adds.
I learned of one teacher who’d persisted when one of his best students, a 13-year-old girl, was not keeping up with the work.
He turned up on the doorstep with a computer tablet and food, returning every week. Eventually, she admitted she was in a terrible domestic abuse situation, where she had to sleep next to her mother in bed to stop the father hitting her mother.
A 14-year-old girl at a comprehensive in the Midlands told me what had happened to one of her male classmates.
He had always enjoyed school, but, during lockdown, she explained: ‘He disappeared for a really long time. Then one day my friends and I saw him at the shopping centre near my school looking a little bit homeless on the side of the street.
‘He was sitting on a bit of cardboard, all dirty. Other kids recognised him and bought him food and clothes. He’d always been popular. Then someone told a teacher and a couple of days later he came back into class.’
It emerged his mother was a drug addict who had ‘lost it’ over lockdown and driven him onto the streets.
There was also another, unexpected reason why many teenagers fell out of school over the pandemic.
Milo, a 14-year-old from East London was an exemplary student before the pandemic, but is now a ghost child.
This was not, as I supposed, due to gangs and drug dealing. Milo had found himself responsible for childcare in the family, looking after his younger siblings.
‘Supervision during lockdown,’ Ray Lewis, founder and CEO of the inspiring Eastside Young Leaders’ Academy, ‘is the single biggest issue among the young people I work with.’
They came from poor families whose parents could not work from home. They had to leave their kids on their own, often supervising younger siblings. And in too many cases, these out-of-sight children slipped through the system.
Milo’s story was typical. When lockdown happened, Milo’s mother caught Covid and lost her job as a carer in the NHS.
Out searching for work, she left Milo, then 13, in charge of his four younger siblings. Meanwhile, Milo’s school had promised food and laptops. ‘But we received nothing,’ he told me. No teacher made contact.
In the absence of schoolwork or a supervising adult, Milo admitted at first he just ‘chilled’ on the estate, smoking joints with his friends.
But, one evening, he did not return until 8pm only to find his mother still absent and his younger siblings wailing with hunger, ‘and I had done nothing about it’.
As I spoke to him, the boy, hardly more than a child himself, paused, his face stricken — hands clenched in his lap.
From then on, he stayed at home. But crammed together all in one room, it was chaotic and draining.
‘Once I woke up and found my three-year-old brother on the balcony.’ He caught the toddler just in time, ‘If I’d opened my eyes just two minutes later…’
His gaze froze with horror at the memory. Then he sighed, ‘I really resent my mum.’
Now after pressure from his mother and his school, he goes in twice a week for a morning. But his heart is not in it. He finds it difficult to get back into a routine. He is behind with work. His attention is on his siblings.
‘They are like my own children now. I don’t want them in the same situation as me. I want them to be educated.’
When education played such a vital role, where was Ofsted and the department of education during the pandemic?
Alice Wilcock, head of education at the Centre for Social Justice, points out the Department of Education has vital data on missing young people for the last academic year but refuses to publish it.
‘By the time this information comes out, these young people will be off the school roll. It’s outrageous. You can’t make good decisions or find the children without data.’
These young people were on the school rolls. The authorities have their details. But unless they are brought back into education or training, as I have seen first-hand with my gang, a grim future awaits them.
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