Who are the ghost children?


An article in the Times (Matthew Patten, 27.3.23), featuring a report from the Centre for Social Justice begins, ‘something is going badly wrong with our schools.’ An alarming number of children are missing school. He quotes, ‘…a 50% jump in the number of pupils severely absent …140,000… 1 in 50, mostly skipping lessons. And over a quarter of children, nearly 2 million, are absent more than 10% of the time. While this report refers to the last two years, the situation cannot be simply explained as after-effects of Covid. 

The sad truth is that something has been going sadly wrong for many years but the problems have been largely ignored by society and government. Most children, even those who do attend, are bored out of their minds and cannot wait to get out of the classroom. In 2022, as research for my latest book, ‘The SENCO Survival Guide,’(published by Routledge, 2022) I spent some time in a primary and secondary school, and talked with college practitioners about the problems. Whilst my focus was on children and students with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND), it was an opportunity to observe other so called ‘disadvantaged’ young people. These it seems, are the ‘ghost children’ Patten refers to. 

My conclusions are that, while teachers appear to work hard to deliver the UK National Curriculum, it does not work for all. The question is – why? Those at the top, from good and caring homes, pushed and prodded along by ambitious parents, have the values of education almost drilled into them from Reception (as my own grandchildren have). However boring their school day, these lucky children persevere because they know that school is important – that their chances of a secure, worthwhile career and future happiness depend on their SATS and GCSE results. 

What about the rest – many thousands of young people, being raised in homes where education is not a priority – but survival in life is? Patten describes these young people as being ‘locked out of their potential’. And indeed they are. Having taught for over thirty years, including a special school, I feel sad that we have reached this point. 

So, where are the answers? First of all these children must be lured back into education. Parents must be more involved. Every school must have a mental health lead and attendance must be closely monitored. But once back, what happens in the classroom for these, either ‘switched off’ or less able learners, must also change significantly, or the situation will get worse. Believe it or not, it IS possible to make learning fun and satisfying. 

Engagement is the missing link. Schooling is not about policing. It’s about providing something for children at lower ability levels that keeps them interested. So, do we need a ‘think tank’, to look urgently into this issue, to look carefully at the NC and devise ways for teachers to deliver learning differently for certain groups of children? Yes! Do we need more fun and games in classrooms? Definitely! Throughout my recent research I saw and heard very little laughter.

Much of this stems from social inequality. This government, largely made up of privileged politicians, needs to remove the blinkers and take a good, honest look at what is going on outside of their comfortable and financially secure lifestyles. Maybe that is partly the issue – should our government seek to include voices from what is regarded as ‘lower class’ sections of society? 

‘Locked out of potential’ means being denied a good job, or worse, being drawn into gang activity and criminality. We must bring these children back into the fold and make schools places where all children can find refuge, and the determination to overcome their challenges. 

Sylvia Edwards is also author of ‘Time of the Virus’, written through the lockdowns of Covid, as a reflective and thought-provoking book about what is wrong with society and what needs to be changed. 

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