Do ‘ghost children’ exist and what can we do about them?

The phrase has quickly developed a life of its own in the media, but who are the ghost children and is our policy response adequate, asks Gemma Moss

The phrase has quickly developed a life of its own in the media, but who are the ghost children and is our policy response adequate, asks Gemma Moss

7 Feb 2022, 5:00

Attention from the mainstream media and an intervention from the Children’s Commissioner have put school attendance at the top of the list of Covid legacy issues for government to deal with. This comes at a time when one of the clearest lessons from the pandemic is just how detached Whitehall decision-making is from the realities schools experience on the ground.   

We are only just beginning to take stock of what schools, families and pupils have learned from the experience of the past two years. Political discourse may have shifted to the challenges of recovering from the pandemic’s impact, but schools and their communities are still dealing with the unanticipated dilemmas of what to do right now, let alone when (or if) the disruptive effects eventually subside. Schools know all too well that removing mandatory restrictions does not bring us any closer to being back to normal. Yet their views on what matters seldom set the terms of the public conversation.  

Take the phrase ‘ghost children’, for example. It seems to have been coined by Robert Halfon, MP in response to Centre for Social Justice figures on pupil absence. Now, it has a life of its own spooking the public and politicians alike. But does it warrant the attention it is getting?   

A cool-headed blogpost from the FFT Education Datalab brings independent and impartial judgement to bear on the accuracy of those figures and explains how commentators jumped to conclusions. It also demonstrates a very different assessment of the likely scale of the problem by unpacking how enrolment data entangled with absence data leads to inflated estimates of the numbers missing or unknown to the sector.  

Few column inches have been dedicated to setting the record straight.

In the process, they also highlight what they see as the main policy issue: the disproportionate numbers of pupils with special educational needs among those who are persistently absent. They add: “The Commissioner may wish to find out why so many young people with EHC plans are not educated in state-funded schools.”  This may well be the issue that requires policy attention, but few column inches have been dedicated to setting the record straight. The real ‘ghost children’ remain invisible.  

Meanwhile, the DfE’s answer is to trial ‘a real-time tracker’ to monitor school-level attendance centrally. It’s unclear how this will be of any help to schools if and when it is ever delivered. It certainly isn’t of any use now, when schools desperately need support to deal with the assault on two fronts from the current wave of Omicron and the legacy issues from previous waves. 

So what should schools be doing? Well, our own research suggests that schools consistently weather the pandemic best when they place building and sustaining strong relationships with their communities at the heart of their response. Schools’ knowledge of what their pupils and their families have gone through and how they are coping physically and mentally provides a much better basis for planning and indeed policymaking than ministers’ narrow prescription of curriculum and catch-up.  

This applies to attendance as much as it does to any other issue. Conversations at local level can establish more quickly what the real issues are for all stakeholders. Locally-determined priorities can then provide useful, reliable front-line evidence of where additional resources are most needed, and the form they should take. 

The story of the pandemic in education has been of a resourceful and resilient school sector taking decision-making into its own hands and getting on with the job, often in spite rather than because of central government advice. Policy makers should be embracing those qualities, rather than doubling down on a ‘command-and-control’ ethos. 

One thing is for sure: Rushing to judgement without showing due care for the perspectives of those already dealing with issues will only lead to more poor decision-making.  

Or to put it another way: Worrying about ‘ghost children’, we end up creating ghost policies. They might scare, but they’re of little substance when it comes to fixing real problems. 

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