Government figures don’t show 140,000 children were ‘completely missing’ from formal schooling last year

6 July 2023
What was claimed

Last year 140,000 children were completely missing from formal schooling.

Our verdict

This is not what the published data shows. The 140,000 figure actually refers to the number of children in England who missed at least 50% of their school sessions in the 2021/22 summer term. Recent government data estimates around 95,000 children were not registered at school or otherwise receiving suitable education at some point in 2021/22, while 116,300 were home-schooled.

“Last year, 1.7 million children missed more than 10% of their schooling, 125,000 were absent more than they were in school, and a further 140,000 were completely missing from formal schooling.”

At Prime Minister’s Questions last week, Labour MP Ian Mearns mentioned a number of statistics relating to pupil absences from school.

Two of these figures appear to be based on government data published in May showing pupil absence in schools in England during the autumn term of last year (the 2022/23 academic year).

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 were classed as severely absent over this period, meaning they missed 50% or more of their possible sessions.

When we asked Mr Mearns what his figure of “a further 140,000” pupils who were “completely missing from formal schooling” referred to, his office cited a Sky News article published in May, which reported that “last year around 140,000 children were never in class”.

We contacted Sky News about this figure, and it told us it refers to the 141,000 children who were recorded as being severely absent, or missing 50% or more of possible sessions, in the summer term of 2021/22 (so, an equivalent statistic to the 125,000 figure mentioned by Mr Mearns, but for the previous school term).

That means Sky News and Mr Mearns were wrong to describe the 140,000 figure as children who were “never in class” or “completely missing” from school, and both have now issued corrections.

The government has recently published data for the first time on the number of children missing education, which estimates that 94,900 children were not registered at school or otherwise receiving suitable education at some point during the 2021/22 academic year. Government data also shows that at some point during the 2021/22 school year, an estimated 116,300 children were home-educated in England.

We’re written several times previously about unevidenced or inaccurate claims relating to school attendance, with those missing school sometimes referred to as “ghost children”

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How the claims were corrected

After Full Fact got in touch, Sky News amended its article to describe the figure correctly.

After we made Mr Mearns aware of his error, he said: “At Prime Minister’s Questions last week I raised the incredibly important issue of the growing number of young people who are missing huge amounts of their education and the safeguarding risk this presents.

“In doing so, I quoted the figure of 140,000 children missing from education entirely in the last year. I took this figure, in good faith, from part of a series of articles on Sky News on the issue. I now understand that this figure is not accurate. The true figure, from the Government data, still stands at nearly 100,000 young people, which is still desperately alarming.”

Mr Mearns told us he has now written to the Prime Minister to correct his comments.

When referring to data, politicians and others in public life 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. We’re grateful to Mr Mearns and Sky News for making quick corrections in this case.

Last month the Procedure Committee made recommendations regarding the corrections system in Parliament. It suggested that the corrections process, which allows ministers to correct the official record, should be extended to all MPs. Full Fact supports this recommendation, which if implemented would make it possible for an MP to arrange for a correction to be made to the parliamentary record in situations like this, where currently no such procedure exists.

Image courtesy of Richard Townshend

We took a stand for good information.

As detailed in our fact check, Ian Mearns MP told us he wrote to the Prime Minister to correct what he said.

Sky News has corrected its article.

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