Additional reporting by Local Democracy Reporter Simon Finlay
Kent has seen a dramatic rise in children 'vanishing' from classrooms since the pandemic, with empty chairs being put down to changing attitudes to education and a rise in home-schooling. Keely Greenwood spoke to parents and teachers to find out why…
Since 2021-22, the number of Kent children missing from education (CME) – defined as not being registered with a school or receiving suitable education in an alternative setting – has risen by 29% (to 1,685) while parents choosing elective home education (EHE) has shot up by 20% to 1,747.
In Medway the numbers are far higher – albeit from a low base, with CMEs up by 44% (to 327) and EHEs by 58% (to 548).
The Kent County Council (KCC) figures were obtained in a freedom of Information request by education expert and former grammar head Peter Read, who says they show the "compact" between parents and the school system to ensure children attend is broken.
He believes this trend of children “vanishing” from traditional education is down to the pandemic, the increase in parents working from home, and a shift in attitudes towards education.
The schools in Kent with higher combined CME/EHE rates are: The Archbishop's School in Canterbury ( 9.8%); Walderslade Girls, Chatham (7.8%); Oasis Academy, Sheppey (7.1%); Astor College, Dover (6.9%), Hartsdown Academy, Margate (6.9%); Ebbsfleet Academy (5.9%); Folkestone Academy (5.5%); St Augustine Academy, Maidstone (4.9%); Sandwich Technology School (4.6%) and New Line Learning, Maidstone (4.5%).
Steve Chalke is the chief executive of Oasis Community Learning, the trust which runs Oasis Academy in Sheerness – albeit having announced it is to pull out next September.
His school has the third-highest number of pupils missing from education. It was also the site of recent strikes by teachers over pupil violence.
Mr Chalke said it is down to the government to work with schools to improve attendance figures.
"Thousands of so-called ‘ghost children’ across the country are missing out on school. Many of them are living in communities struggling with deprivation, poverty, and other social problems,” he said.
"This impacts their education and wellbeing, and it can often put them at greater risk of exploitation and harm.
"Improving attendance is not something schools can do on their own. They need the resources to deliver. We need much more government investment in our young people and to tackle the root causes of non-attendance.
"That means investing in better special educational needs support and in top quality alternative provision, as well as boosting mental health services, pastoral, therapeutic care, and youth work.
"Until we recognise that these are deeply complex, long-standing problems and that this post-Covid generation of children needs much wider support than schools are being given at the moment, we will continue to see thousands of young people missing out on their education.”
The rise in children being "de-registered" so parents can educate their children at home has been significant, Mr Read says.
Last year the number of home-educated children jumped by 42%, according to KCC, with an increase of 28.7% in children aged between 13 and 15 opting out of the classroom.
Almost one-third of those who chose home educating in the last year cited mental or emotional health as the reason.
She said: “It wasn’t something we had ever considered, then I got chatting to someone who was home educating their child and Matilda and I decided to give it a try.
“I wanted it to be about having fun, meeting new friends, and trying new things.”
Home-educating mum Emma, 43, discovered it was not about becoming an expert in every school subject overnight but about finding what worked best for her and her child.
Emmie Gillard is also 14. She has been home-educated for the past two years after bullying at school made it an unbearable place to be.
Emmie, from Sutton-at-Hone, said; “I just did not get on with school. It was just too much. They put so much pressure on you. And I was being bullied.”
She added: “I’m not judged against everyone else when I’m at home and I’m not made to feel stupid.”
She said she has changed a lot since being home-educated.
“I was not confident at all at school, but I am now. My mum and I temper the learning to what I am interested in and how I learn best. It’s much more flexible than school.
Mum Jo, 50, agreed. “She was so shy and so anxious. Her mental health was going downhill.”
And then there’s truancy. Emily [not her real name] found herself at court in Folkestone earlier this year to explain why her 13-year-old had a 2% attendance record.
Her child is among the tens of thousands across Kent who were persistently absent from school last year.
Emily, from Margate, was visibly upset as she previously told KentOnline about the difficulty she faced in trying to get her teenage son to attend lessons, while also managing the school run for his younger siblings.
She explained: “We dealt with a lot as a family last year. There was a breakdown of a relationship – my former partner – and I think that affected my son in a lot of ways.”
“I think it shouldn’t just be the school saying ‘oh well, just get on with it and get them to school’. The children need help...”
“He says he doesn’t enjoy it, that the work is hard. He didn’t like to be away from home, and he didn’t like his teacher, and a name the teacher used to call him.
“I’ve tried to explain to him what can happen to me if he doesn’t go – I’ve got two other kids and I can’t be in two places at once.”
In the UK, punishments for repeatedly failing to get children to school range from fines to three months in prison for the most drastic cases.
Emily had pleaded guilty to knowingly failing to ensure her child’s regular attendance at school.
But a grandmother charged with the same crime elected to take on the council at trial.
Speaking to KentOnline outside Folkestone Magistrates’ Court after pleading not guilty, she called KCC “cold-hearted”.
She described how a series of complex family issues contributed to a difficult home life for her grandchildren.
“I think it shouldn’t just be the school saying ‘oh well, just get on with it and get them to school’. The children need help.
“Of course, every parent wants their children to go to school, to learn, and to make friends, but it doesn’t matter what you say to these people – all they see is the attendance sheet.”
Ofsted believes nearly one in four pupils were absent for 10% of school sessions in autumn 2022, nearly double the position in 2019.
Mr Read explained: "There is no doubt that Covid has much to answer for in terms of the mental health of a generation of children, and these outcomes are just some of the consequences.
"Before Covid, children went to school and it was an expectation but, post-Covid, that has changed.
"It is no longer seen as an expectation or an obligation for children to attend anymore. It has been exacerbated by people working from home. We have broken a compact.
"The discipline of attendance has also gone down and we're struggling to get some children back into school regularly. It's a huge problem."
Mr Read added: "Home education will be fine for some children with parents able to provide alternative arrangements and private tutors and online programmes flourishing, but there is a fear for many others.
"Parents are not obliged to explain their provision to education officers, so there is no formal check on their activities."
In September, former Kent County Council principal primary adviser and now Conservative county councillor, Simon Webb, said: “The habit of taking children to school in the morning and picking them up again in the afternoon has been lost to an extent.
“Mental health issues among young people is also an issue and the chance of a quick referral is very, very low.
“Threatening parents with sanctions would only have a detrimental effect, so the schools have to make their offering more attractive for the children to want to come back each day.
“Schools should be developing a nurturing curriculum by giving the child things that might interest them away from the classroom, such as gardening or sports. It’s an encouragement for the children to get back into the habit of learning.”
Cllr Webb said there was a “clear onus” by Ofsted to get children into school by giving them the support they might need.
There are other reasons behind the rise in CMEs such as people shifting around the country for employment and workers returning to Europe.
There has also long been a tradition for Roma gypsy and Traveller children to leave education early.
As well as it being a cultural norm, members of the community say wider issues of bullying, insufficient funding, and a rigid curriculum are all reasons why these kids are the lowest-attending ethnic group in the UK when it comes to school.
Since 2013, the law has required young people to continue in education, employment, or training until the age of 18 but despite this, in many Roma gypsy and Traveller communities, this is not the case.
Often they are forced out of school through bullying.
Maryann Eastwood, a Roma Traveller from Faversham, was keen to learn when she first started primary school.
Sadly, when she arrived for her first day, her experience quickly turned sour due to bullying.
“People would call me g****, “p****”, and say I was dirty and smelly,” recalled the 44-year-old.
Director of the Gypsy Council, Joe Jones, added: “Parents normally pull their children out because of sex educational learning and the lack of practical skills.”
By 11, it is believed that children have learned the necessities of reading and writing, and must then take on life skills – boy learn a trade from their peers while girls learn home-care such as cooking and cleaning.
He said: “I took my children out during the summer because I had to work and put food on the table.”