Think tank figure does not show 100,000 children ‘never went back to school’ due to lockdown

16 March 2023
What was claimed

A report by the Centre for Social Justice think tank found 100,000 children left education permanently due to lockdowns during the pandemic.

Our verdict

While attendance has dropped significantly, the figure quoted here does not show 100,000 children never returned to school. The figure actually describes the number of children in England who missed at least half of their sessions in Autumn 2020. Before the pandemic around 60,000 children were missing at least half of their available sessions.

Thanks to the work of the Centre for Social Justice think tank, we now know that when all this nonsense was finally over, as many as 100,000 youngsters never went back to school. Dubbed "ghost children," they dropped off school registers during lockdown, never to return.

You only have to look, for example, at education… over 100,000 children were lost to education forever because of the repeated lockdowns in schools. They dropped off school registers, they never returned.

Isabel Oakeshott, the journalist behind the Telegraph’s ‘Lockdown Files’ investigation which revealed a cache of Whatsapp messages sent and received by former health secretary Matt Hancock during the pandemic, has repeated inaccurate claims about “ghost children” who left education “forever” due to lockdown. 

This is an old claim we’ve seen before, and as we have written before, describing the 100,000 figure in this way is misleading. It is a figure for the number of children in England who missed at least half of their school sessions in Autumn 2020, not the number of children who disappeared completely from education. 

Ms Oakeshott made the claim in an opinion piece published by the Telegraph both online and in print on 2 March.  

The Telegraph removed the line from the online article after being contacted by Full Fact, and issued a print correction on 9 March which described the 100,000 claim as “incorrect”. 

Ms Oakeshott made the claim again in an interview with the BBC’s political editor Chris Mason on the Newscast podcast, saying “over 100,000 children were lost to education forever because of the repeated lockdowns in schools.”

Although the figure quoted by Ms Oakeshott does not show what she claimed, that’s not to say that school attendance isn’t an issue. The number of children missing at least half the time they should be at school has risen significantly since the start of the pandemic. 

In the autumn and spring terms of the 2021/22 academic year, around 110,000 children missed 50% or more of available sessions, while the most recent figures show that since the start of the current academic year almost a quarter of pupils in England have missed at least 10% of available sessions.  

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What did the CSJ’s research find?

As Ms Oakeshott says in the Telegraph opinion article, the claim about 100,000 “ghost children” originates with the Center for Social Justice (CSJ).

In the summer of 2021, the think tank published a report claiming that between September and December 2020, 93,514 pupils in England were “severely absent”, which means they missed school more often than they attended. We have fact checked the use of the 100,000 figure to wrongly describe the current number of pupils “missing” from school before

The “severely absent” category included in the CSJ’s report does not describe children who left school during lockdown and never returned, as Ms Oakeshott claimed. Instead, it refers to the number of pupils who attended fewer than 50% of available sessions in Autumn 2020. Of course, this likely includes a proportion of children who did not return to school, but it also includes children whose attendance fell to very low—though not non-existent—levels. 

What’s more, the suggestion that all of these 100,000 children previously had good attendance at school before the pandemic—and so it was lockdowns that caused their exit from education—is inaccurate. As we have previously written, even before Covid-19 in the autumn term of 2019, 60,244 pupils were classed as severely absent according to the CSJ’s analysis.

This means that while the number of severely absent children did rise significantly between the autumn terms 2019 and 2020, it is likely that factors contributing to the absence of a larger number of the 100,000 children cited may not be related to—or at least dependent on—the pandemic. 

Many more children are absent than before the pandemic

This isn’t to say that pupil attendance hasn’t worsened significantly since before the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Since the start of the current academic year in September 2022, 23.4% of pupils in England have been classed as persistently absent, meaning they have missed 10% or more of available sessions.

To compare this to before the pandemic, government figures show that the rate of persistent absence was 13.1% in the autumn term of 2019. 

The number of children classed as severely absent (missing 50% or more of available sessions) has also near-doubled since the start of the pandemic. In the 2018/19 autumn and spring terms, 57,167 children in England were classed as severely absent, while in 2021/22 this rose to 110,470 children.  

Other estimates of how many pupils have left education entirely have been published since the start of the pandemic. 

When we contacted Ms Oakeshott for comment we were directed to previous reporting from the Mirror and the Times which claimed up to 135,000 children were missing from education. The Mirror linked this number to the Children’s Commissioner Rachel de Souza, but a spokesperson for Ms de Souza told us that she had never published this figure and said it appeared to instead originate from the Times’ reporting. 

We fact checked the Times’ figure of 135,000 shortly after it was published in October 2021, and said the figure needed more context because it was based on a simple calculation which used attendance figures for just one day and couldn't provide a reliable picture of how many pupils had been persistently absent over an extended period of time. 

A spokesperson for the Children’s Commissioner told us this week that they were not aware of any statistics that showed the number of children who had “dropped off registers” and left school entirely, though they will be undertaking new research into children who are missing from education and being educated at home. 

They added that research could be done using the National Pupil Database, which would identify pupils who appeared on the school roll in a given school census but are not included in the census the following year. However, this database doesn’t give the destination of pupils who drop off the school roll, so doesn’t show if they have moved out of education entirely or left for another reason such as moving abroad, moving into an independent school or moving into home education. 

Full Fact has contacted the Mirror, the BBC and the Telegraph for comment. 

Image courtesy of Aaron Burden

We took a stand for good information.

As detailed in our fact check, the Telegraph amended its article and added a correction note, as well as publishing a correction in the paper.

We subsequently contacted the Mirror and the BBC to request a corrections regarding claims mentioned in our fact check.

The Mirror amended its article and added a footnote. 

The BBC discussed our complaint with Newscast's senior editorial team but decided a correction was not necessary.

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