Ghost Children

Education is in a mess and ministers are completely out of touch with the problem. An editorial in the Times (23.5.23) highlights unacceptable numbers of children not attending school. The article ponders on what ‘has persuaded a significant number of parents that education is an optional extra rather than a moral and legal obligation…’ But we must not entirely blame the parents. Have Ministers and those in charge at the top of government any real idea of the extent of  many learners’ disengagement with school learning? I suspect not. 

The problem of pupils not attending school is partly to do with their experiences when they do attend. Around a third of children, especially at secondary level, spend their school days bored and fed up. Do they see their learning as pointless? I suspect many do. 

The people who pontificate and attempt to put the problems right, would do well to spend time in classes, observing significant numbers of pupils who either have Special Educational Needs and Disabilities, are socially disadvantaged, or have poor levels of spoken English. They would also observe teachers valiantly striving to teach an outdated National Curriculum to children who cannot benefit from it because the gap between its challenges and what these children bring into the classroom is far too wide. This huge hole is what so-called ‘ghost’ children tumble into – and often fail to climb out of. 

So how can education bridge this gap? Engagement is surely the first step. The editorial mentions ‘attendance hubs’ that will assign mentors to absentee pupils. Yet these cover only a fraction of the numbers. It is no use forcing pupils to attend school, only to waste their time by being disengaged, potentially disrupting lessons, and failing to see any point in being there. 

The editorial describes education as a ‘moral and legal obligation’. And so it is. But is there also a moral and legal obligation to make teaching/learning fit for purpose – to reach out to every learner present in school? Parents also have a moral and legal obligation: to allow their child to make the most of what school can offer, as the gateway to a more secure and rewarding future. 

To this end, schools and parents must now work together in ways that have never yet been attempted – as equal partners in learning. The first task is to get young people back into school. The second is to get them to see WHY learning is so essential to their future life chances. The third task is to switch young brains back on so that what happens in lessons is seen as wholly relevant.

All of this seems simple, but isn’t. Schools are generally under-resourced. The current ratio of staff to pupils does not easily allow these problems to be resolved. Teachers are already struggling to do their job, while more is continually being asked of them. 

Yet, at the heart of these issues are learners, for whom their time in school, every moment, matters. Is it now time to invite them to play a more significant role in making their educational experience better? Learner independence has long been a missing link. Ministers and professionals may think they know better – but do they? At the heart of education are the children and students. Let’s ask them what they think, and where possible act on it. 

Sylvia Edwards is author of ‘Time of the Virus’ written through the lockdowns of Covid, as a reflective and highly thought-provoking book about what is wrong with society and what needs to be changed, as well as ‘The SENCO Survival Guide,’ third edition, published 2022, focusing on improving outcomes for children and students with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities.

« Back to Blog