BEFORE the pandemic, 12-year-old Liam (name changed) was a happy little boy who loved school and had lots of friends.
But since November he has refused to go to class.
Mum Angie (name changed), 40, from Bristol, who has three other children, says: “He started complaining of tummy pains and being sick every evening. I thought he had a virus.
“But after two visits to the doctor, he was diagnosed with anxiety following lockdown.
“He used to love school, but it’s become a battle to get him to attend.
“Some days I can’t manage it.”
Liam’s story is far from unique, as school absence levels across the country are at crisis point.
An estimated 1.85million children in England’s primary and secondary schools — around one in four — are persistently off, missing ten per cent of their lessons.
Of these, 140,000 are “severely absent”, missing more days than they attend.
This figure has more than doubled since the pandemic.
These missing pupils have been called “ghost children” by experts, but it is a label some parents reject.
Robert Halfon, Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, believes they are at risk of “damage to their mental health, damage to their safeguarding and loss of life chances”.
‘Social media can be a pandemic in itself’
Headteachers say ghost children are absent for many reasons, ranging from the impact of the cost-of-living crisis to being exploited by county lines drug gangs.
Children’s Commissioner Rachel de Souza believes it is “one of the issues of our age”, but insists pupils are not absent because they do not want to learn.
She says: “On the contrary, they are desperate to learn but find themselves without the support they need to engage in education.”
The problem is significantly worse in disadvantaged areas, where more than 1,000 schools have an entire class-worth of students absent.
Children entitled to free school meals are three times more likely to be severely absent than classmates.
In Bradford, 27,292 children were persistently absent last summer term.
That accounts for a third of all pupils in the city and was the second highest council area in the country after Middlesbrough.
A senior teacher at one of the city’s secondary schools, who oversees attendance and safeguarding, says there has been a significant rise in absent kids.
He adds: “Issues can be anxiety, bullying and wanting to be away from large groups.
“Social media and our children’s access to it is almost a pandemic in itself too.
“While we can tackle bullying in school, we can’t control what goes on away from our doors.”
He said that disadvantage was another factor, with some parents struggling to afford the petrol needed to get their kids to school.
A Centre for Social Justice report last month concluded that, for the most part, this crisis is not down to careless parents or kids playing truant for fun.
Alice Wilcock, the centre’s head of education, says: “The biggest factor is that children’s anxiety and mental health are much worse since the pandemic.
“We’re also seeing a lot more who don’t turn up because their families simply can’t afford it, whether that’s a bus ticket, a uniform or even sanitary products when a girl is on her period.”
One in six children aged seven to 16 were thought to have a mental health disorder in 2022, compared with one in nine pre pandemic.
But the waiting list for the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service can be months, if not years.
“The post-pandemic focus has been wholly on catch-up academic learning,” says Alice.
“We expected our children to just bounce back, but they couldn’t.
“The support can’t reach the kids who need it most, because they aren’t there.”
Steve Chalke, founder of Oasis Charitable Trust, which runs 52 primary and secondary schools, has seen the fall-out first-hand.
He says: “The long-term impact is going to be horrendous — crime, ill health, a generation who are disempowered.”
He cites the example of one 13-year-old student who was failing to attend after lockdown: “When she did come in, she was late, dishevelled and fell asleep in class.
“We found out her father had died and her mother suffered a breakdown.
“She’d get her two younger siblings up, dressed, make their lunch and take them to school, before caring for her mum.
“The family did not receive ongoing care from social services or mental health teams because the staff are overstretched.”
‘We had nowhere to turn, and felt failures’
Mum-of-three Maddie Roberts was threatened with fines after her son Harleigh stopped going to school two years ago.
The ten-year-old is autistic and his difficulties with the school environment got much worse after lockdown.
Pupils who receive support for special education needs make up 12 per cent of all schoolchildren but 20 per cent of severely absent ones.
Maddie, 40, who lives with husband Leigh, 36, a kitchen fitter, in Sandy, Beds, says: “Harleigh is bright and curious, he wants to learn.
“But trying to comply with so many demands and rules, the bustle, the amount of children, he just couldn’t do it.
“For five months he wouldn’t leave his room or get dressed.
“We had nowhere to turn and we felt like we were failing as parents.”
Fortunately, after being referred, Harleigh is now learning again through a council-funded scheme called Education Other Than At School, attending an alternative provision centre.
“People think education is just school or home education and that isn’t true,” says Maddie, who is a member of a campaign group for parents called Not Fine in School.
She believes that options such as EOTAS are vital for a large proportion of ghost children who need a more flexible approach to learning.
“It makes me so emotional to see the trust Harleigh has in the adults who now work with him.
“He’s happy to get up, get dressed and take a taxi there, and I know he is safe and happy.”
The Department for Education says school is the best environment for pupils to learn in as it helps keep children safe and supports them in reaching their potential.
But it admits there is work to do and is prioritising introducing measures to improve school attendance.
This includes training attendance advisers to help get persistently absent pupils back into schools.