No evidence for MP’s claim 100,000 ‘ghost kids’ disappeared from school rolls in pandemic

23 June 2023
What was claimed

Following pandemic school closures 100,000 children have disappeared off school rolls.

Our verdict

While the rate of severe absence in schools has increased significantly compared to pre-pandemic levels, this figure does not tell us anything about the number of pupils who left school during the pandemic and never returned. The figure is based on the number of children in England who missed at least half of their sessions in Autumn 2020.

To come on to the next scandal, our schools were shut. That is a disaster that has stalled educational improvement, and 100,000 kids—ghost kids—have disappeared off the rolls.

During a debate in Parliament on 19 June regarding the Privileges Committee’s report into Boris Johnson’s conduct, Conservative MP Bob Seely claimed that 100,000 “ghost kids” had “disappeared off the [school] rolls” following school closures during the pandemic. 

This is an old claim, and one we have fact checked many times before. Describing the 100,000 figure in this way is misleading, because it doesn’t actually relate to the number of children who left school during pandemic school closures, but rather the number of children in England who missed at least half of their possible school sessions in the 2020 Autumn term. 

When we asked Mr Seely for evidence for his claim, a spokesperson for the MP told us: “This is a figure that Bob's heard. It's been commonly used in public discourse. Bob understands that it came from the Children's commissioner (Dame Rachel de Souza). 

“He is currently trying to get an updated figure, as well as a figure for the Isle of Wight. Bob is also aware this figure comes from around a year ago; it's unclear whether the figure is still accurate. 

“However, this remains the best figure until more up to date figures become available.”

But 100,000 is not the most recent figure. We previously wrote to Mr Seely in February 2022 after he made a similar claim to inform him that what Ms de Souza said (which we fact checked at the time) was incorrect. Furthermore, as we have set out above, the 100,000 figure has never shown how many children disappeared off school rolls during Covid-19 school closures. 

Other data does show around 95,000 children were missing education in 2021/22, but we can’t say what effect the pandemic has had on this figure as the data to do so isn’t available.

When referring to data, ministers and other politicians should ensure their claims accurately reflect what it shows. Politicians and others in public life should take care to avoid the misleading use of data and statistics, and should correct mistakes promptly. 

Where does the 100,000 figure come from? 

The 100,000 figure gained prominence in the summer of 2021, following a report written by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) which said that between September and December 2020, 93,514 pupils in England were “severely absent”, which means they missed school more often than they attended.

The “severely absent” category included in the CSJ’s report does not describe children who left school during lockdown and never returned. Instead, it refers to the number of pupils who attended fewer than 50% of available sessions in Autumn 2020. 

This likely includes a proportion of children who did not return to school, but it also includes children whose attendance fell to very low levels. 

Additionally, the number of severely absent children was not zero before the pandemic. In the last full year before the pandemic—2018/19—60,247 students missed at least half of sessions.

It’s true that the Children’s Commissioner Ms de Souza had previously made the claim. During an interview with Radio 4 in January 2022, she said that there was a group of children who “are not even on any school roll” following national Covid-19 lockdowns, and “we estimate that is between 80,000 and 100,000” children. 

As we wrote at the time, this was not correct. Ms de Souza’s office told us she "misspoke in the midst of a long, live, on air interview”.  

Mr Seely previously made a very similar claim, telling the House of Commons in January 2022: “We have now seen from the 100,000 children who have come off school rolls and disappeared.” 

We made Mr Seely aware of our fact check on Ms de Souza’s claim at the time and asked him to correct his claim publicly. However, we did not receive a response. 

We don’t know how many children left school rolls during Covid-19 school closures 

As far as Full Fact is aware, there are no statistics available that can tell us how many children left school rolls during pandemic school closures and never returned to education.

A spokesperson for the Children’s Commissioner told us last month that it wasn't possible to identify the number of children who have dropped off the school roll using the published absence statistics, and that they weren't aware of any official statistics showing this figure.

It’s important to note that while the 100,000 figure may not tell us anything about how many children left school permanently during closures, the number of children who are severely absent from school has risen significantly since before the pandemic. 

Figures covering the entire 2021/22 school year show that 120,623 pupils missed 50% or more of the total sessions available throughout the year. The most recent available figures, covering the 2022/23 Autumn term, show that 125,222 pupils in England were classed as severely absent over this period. 

However, this represents a drop in the number of severely absent pupils in the previous term. Government statistics for the 2021/22 Summer term show that 140,843 children were severely absent over this period. 

In May the government released statistics for the first time on both the estimated number of children who were home educated and the estimated number of children who were missing education (meaning they were not registered in school and not otherwise receiving a suitable education). 

These showed that at some point during the 2021/22 school year, an estimated 116,300 children were home educated in England, and that in the same time period an estimated 94,900 children were missing education altogether. 

As these are new statistics, it is not possible to compare these figures with any from before the pandemic. 

Image courtesy of Chris McAndrew

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After we published this fact check, we contacted Bob Seely to request a correction regarding this claim.

Bob Seely has not yet made a correction.

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