Government data doesn’t show 125,000 children ‘never going’ to school

17 October 2023
What was claimed

125,000 children are never going to school at all.

Our verdict

Approximately 125,000 pupils in England were severely absent in the 2022/23 autumn term, meaning they missed 50% or more of their possible sessions. This does not mean that none of these children are going to school at all.

"We have “ghost children”, 1.7 million regularly missing [school] and 125,000 never going at all."

A column published in The Times this week, under the headline “Ghost children of lockdown deserve redress”, claimed that there are 125,000 “ghost children” who are “never going at all” to school.

We’ve written about claims surrounding “ghost children”, or children missing education, made by politicians and other public figures on a number of occasions over the last year, and have contacted The Times about this claim as it does not appear to be supported by the government’s published data.

The 125,000 figure mentioned in the column is possibly based on the number of children in England who missed at least 50% of their school sessions in the 2022/23 autumn term.

This isn’t the same as saying 125,000 were “never going at all” to school.

Education is a devolved matter, and the following figures refer to state schools in England, for which the Department for Education is responsible.

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What does the data show?

The figures cited in the column match the latest figures published by the Department for Education (DfE) on persistent and severe pupil absence from school in the autumn term of the last school year (2022/23).

This data shows that 1.7 million pupils in England were classed as “persistent absentees”, meaning they missed 10% or more of their possible sessions that term. (A school day is split into two sessions, morning and afternoon.)

Approximately 125,000 pupils in England missed 50% or more of their possible sessions over this period, which the DfE defines as “severe absence”.

But this data does not show how many of these 125,000 pupils stopped attending school altogether. If this is what the column is referring to, it’s not accurate to say that this many pupils were never in school at all.

The government does publish other data around children who are not in school, but this data does not show how many children who have a school place have stopped attending school altogether. 

Earlier this year the government published data for the first time on the number of children missing education, which estimates that 94,900 children in England were not registered at school or otherwise receiving suitable education at some point during the 2021/22 academic year. However this figure does not show the number of children who are registered at school but never attending.

Government data also shows that at some point during the 2021/22 school year, an estimated 116,300 children were home-educated in England.

When referring to data, newspapers and columnists should ensure their claims accurately reflect what it shows. They should take care to avoid the misleading use of data and statistics, and correct mistakes promptly.

Image courtesy of Jeswin Thomas

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After we published this fact check, we contacted The Times to request a correction regarding this claim.

The Times did not respond.

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