School statistics don’t show 140,000 children ‘never came back’ after pandemic disruption

11 May 2023
What was claimed

140,000 children went missing from education during the pandemic and have not returned to school.

Our verdict

The 140,000 figure is the number of children in England who missed at least half of their available sessions in the summer term of 2022—not the number who have left school completely. The number of children missing at least half of their sessions has grown significantly since before the pandemic.

We already have a reported 140,000 “ghost children”­—youngsters who went missing during the pandemic home-schooling regime and never came back.

In a recent column for the Sun, the businesswoman and Conservative peer Karren Brady claimed that 140,000 “ghost children” disappeared from school during the pandemic and “never came back”. 

Baroness Brady repeated the claim a day later on Twitter, writing: “There are a reported 140k children who went missing in pandemic home-schooling & never came back.” 

The figure of 140,000 children missing from school may have been taken from a report by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) thinktank, or from government statistics published in March 2023 (on which the CSJ’s report is based). It describes the number of children in England who were “severely absent” in the 2022 summer term—that is, missed at least 50% of possible school sessions (a school day is split into two sessions, morning and afternoon). It does not describe the number of children who left school and “never came back”.

Claims similar to this have been repeated many times since the Covid-19 lockdowns, and we have fact checked them a number of times before

After being contacted by Full Fact, the Sun corrected the line in Baroness Brady’s column to read: “There were 140,000 "ghost children" who were severely absent - meaning they missed at least 50 per cent of possible school sessions - in summer 2022.” Baroness Brady did not respond to a request for comment but her tweet has since been deleted.

Selective or misleading use of official information without appropriate context and caveats can damage public trust in both official information and politicians. Politicians and others in public life should take care to avoid the misleading use of data and statistics, and should correct mistakes promptly. We’re grateful to the Sun for quickly amending Baroness Brady’s column in this instance.

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Severe absence is an increasing problem

It’s important to note that while the 140,000 figure doesn’t represent the number of children who “never came back”, that doesn’t mean school attendance isn’t an issue. The number of children missing 50% or more of available sessions has risen significantly since the start of 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. This is more than double the number of pupils classed as severely absent in the last full year before the pandemic—2018/19—when 60,247 students missed at least half of sessions. 

Concerns and questions about the number of pupils who left school during the pandemic have been raised a number of times in recent years. A spokesperson for the Children’s Commissioner told us that it wasn't possible to identify the number of children who have gone missing from education using the published absence statistics, and that they weren't aware of any official statistics on the number of children who have dropped off the school roll. We also asked the Department for Education if it has access to any such statistics but did not receive a response.

Others have also misreported the 140,000 figure

A number of other publications have also reported on the 140,000 figure in a misleading way.

For example, the Mirror published a headline which said: “Warning over 140,000 'ghost children' who have disappeared from UK schools since pandemic”.

After being contacted by Full Fact, the Mirror changed the headline to read: “Warning over 140,000 'ghost children' missing from school last summer”, and added a correction note which states: “This story has been updated post-publication to reflect that the Covid pandemic is just one reason some of these children are missing from school, while the 140,000 figure purely relates to the summer of 2022.” 

We also contacted the Spectator about a line in its write-up of a podcast on “ghost children” which initially claimed that 140,000 children had been missing from school “since the pandemic”. The Spectator changed this line after being contacted by Full Fact. 

We also contacted GB News about a headline which said “Warning issued as 'tens of thousands of children fail to return to school' after lockdown”, but did not receive a response.

Image courtesy of Johnny McClung

We took a stand for good information.

As detailed in our fact check, the Sun corrected a line in Baroness Brady’s column and Baroness Brady's tweet has now been deleted.

The Mirror changed its headline and the Spectator amended a line in its write-up of a podcast on “ghost children”.

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