1,400 'ghost pupils' absent for more than half of school during Covid

The number of so-called 'ghost pupils' has nearly doubled in Suffolk during the coronavirus pandemic

The number of so-called 'ghost pupils' has nearly doubled in Suffolk during the coronavirus pandemic - Credit: PA/SARAH LUCY BROWN/BEC JASPER

The number of so-called 'ghost pupils' who missed more than 50% of school sessions has nearly doubled during the pandemic, new data has revealed.

In the autumn term of 2019, there were 840 'ghost pupils' in the county. One year and two lockdowns later, there were 1,435.

A report published at the end of January by a think-tank called the Centre for Social Justice estimated that there are roughly 100,000 'ghost pupils' nationally.

In one case in Suffolk a pupil is said to have refused to leave his bedroom for months after the first lockdown due to the fear of contracting the virus.

Education experts say a drop in attendance has been seen across mainstream schools, alternative provisions and special schools throughout the pandemic.

File photo dated 08/02/12 of school pupils during a lesson. Children who are not in school will be l

In the autumn term of 2019, there were 840 'ghost pupils' in Suffolk. One year and two lockdowns later, there were 1,435. - Credit: PA

But the issue with so-called 'ghost pupils' is greater in alternative provisions which provide schooling for young people with social, emotional and mental health needs.

The head of one alternative provision in the county, who this newspaper has agreed not to name, said alternative provisions always expected to have lower attendance than mainstream schools but this gap has widened over the pandemic.

"Imagine that you're spending your life being chased by a tiger and always terrified," the headteacher said.

Most Read

"There are children around whose life is like that. They are everywhere, but the percentage of them is much higher in alternative provisions.

"They're forever stressed. And one of the things that we do when we're stressed is freeze or hide. It's therefore a natural response not to go to school when you can hide."

The headteacher said low absences were "a symptom" and not necessarily a problem in and of itself.

'Ghost pupils' are most common in alternative provisions, education experts have said.

'Ghost pupils' are most common in alternative provisions, education experts have said. - Credit: PA

"If a child is struggling, do you serve them best by making them stay in school all day?" the headteacher said. "A couple of hours of positive, really engaged learning is better than five hours of a totally traumatised child.

"You can't force a child to learn if their brain is in the wrong state for them to learn.

They added: "It's not a symptom caused by the lockdown. But it has been highlighted by the lockdown.

"The biggest challenge that schools have got, is the fact that the mental health services have been devastated over the years.

"They're all overwhelmed. Children are not getting the mental health support they need."

Parents and Carers Together (PACT), a support group which works with the parents and carers of young people who are struggling with their mental health, has seen its membership double during the pandemic.

Bec Jasper from Parents and Carers Together Picture: BEC JASPER

Bec Jasper from Parents and Carers Together Picture: BEC JASPER - Credit: Bec Jasper

Bec Jasper, of PACT, said the increase in the number of 'ghost pupils' was not surprising.

She said the group preferred to look at persistent absenteeism – when pupils missed more than 10% of possible school sessions – rather than the number of so-called 'ghost pupils'.

"The reasons behind persistent absence are varied and can be complex," she said. "Statistics show that many pupils who are persistently absent receive free school meals, many are on special educational needs support or have an education, health and care plan.

"Now consider two years of instability, anxiety, loss, trauma and no access to life as it was known pre-pandemic.

"It's obvious to see why we have many more children and young people struggling to return to 'normality'."

The impact of continued absences on young people's mental health is one of experts key concerns.

Jon Neal, chief executive of Suffolk Mind, said: “School plays a vital role in developing skills and resources within our children that build confidence and enable them to meet their emotional needs through both schoolwork and their social skills."

Jon Neal, Chief Executive of Suffolk Mind

Jon Neal, Chief Executive of Suffolk Mind - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

Tim Coulson, chief executive of Unity Schools Partnership, which has secondary, middle, primary and special schools in Suffolk, said: "Every day that is missed in school is significant – we know that higher absence leads to lower attainment and contributes to poorer social relationships and greater likelihood of poor mental health. 

Tim Coulson, chief executive of Unity Schools Partnership

Tim Coulson, chief executive of Unity Schools Partnership - Credit: Unity Schools Partnership

“We are working closely with professionals in and outside our schools to support children overcome the issues that have led to their poor attendance."

Parents and carers of young people who are experiencing mental health issues can seek help here.