15th June 2022

Voices of England’s Missing Children

Foreword by Dame Rachel de Souza

As Children’s Commissioner for England, I want all of England’s children to have everything they need to thrive, to be happy and healthy. This means the ambitions of every child being matched by the support around them – by their family, schools and, where needed, being able to access brilliant mental health, social care and Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) support.

Last year, I launched The Big Ask survey, the largest ever survey of children in England ever with 550,000 responses, to hear from England’s children about what matters most to them. I saw just how ambitious this generation of children are. What I also saw, though, was that they need support to achieve their goals. Support from their family, their schools and where they have additional needs, from specialist services like the NHS. This must mean that wherever you live, whichever school you attend, you should get the very best possible education and support – we should have no patience for “good enough”.

The Big Ask was launched as we were emerging from the pandemic, and I heard loud and clear from children just how much they had missed school – they missed learning face-to-face with their teachers, they missed spending time with their friends – and they missed the sports, the clubs and the trips that can bring joy and excitement into their lives. They missed their school lunches! I have spoken to hundreds of children since the pandemic who are overjoyed to be back in school and getting back to normal.

The children I heard from in The Big Ask, those I’ve spoken to in my first year as Children’s Commissioner, as well as those I worked with in my career as a teacher and headteacher, confirmed what I believe to be true, that school is the right place for children to be.

They are safe and fun places where they can get a great education, unlocking the doors to their future, and access enriching opportunities and make lasting friendships. School is absolutely central to children’s lives.

And yet, even before the pandemic, there is a group of children who struggle to attend school regularly and who have fallen through the gaps in our education system. Coming out of the pandemic, this group has only gotten bigger, with even more children not attending school regularly or dropping out altogether. I predicted that around 1.8 million were regularly absent from school in Autumn 2021 and so when the school census confirmed the number was 1.7 million, I wasn’t shocked, but I was surprised. In Autumn 2021, the number of children persistently absent more than doubled compared to 2018/19, almost 1 in 4 children were persistently absent from school compared to around 1 in 9 in 2018/19. My hypothesis was right. This was exacerbated as there was no national picture of where children were and if they were attending school. Local Authorities instead relied on time lagged and fragmented data, and in some cases, no data at all.

And so, this is why I launched my Attendance Audit which started with a survey of every council in the country to identify the children missing from education. I was shocked but not surprised to find out that it is hard for some local authorities to know how many children they have in their area – let alone how many are out of school. And it convinced me that we need a national effort to really shift the dial. A national blueprint to get all children back where they want to be.

I conducted deep dives with 10 local authorities to find these groups of children and understand their experiences in more detail. I wanted to speak to the children missing from education directly, to get beyond the labels, and listen to their experiences and what they need to get back into school.

What I heard was inspiring. I have spoken to children who feel that their school has saved their lives and children whose school has given them the skills and direction to look forward to the future with confidence. Yet, some children we spoke with did not have a positive experience with their education or felt let down by a fractured system. A system that wasn’t designed around them.

Until we have a system that is designed for and around children, using their, and their families’, voices as the catalyst for making things better we cannot be confident that every child is happy, healthy and safe. We need everyone who has a role in children’s lives to design and implement systems and services with this same vision at their heart.

This report details the findings of my Audit and the solutions and practical ideas the young people and my team have identified that can make a real difference. I have also set out an ambitious programme of work which my office will undertake to keep supporting children and young people. This includes making it my mission to see every child in school and ready to learn on the first day of the September term. I want attendance to be 100%. Not to return to pre-pandemic levels, but to be even better. If we settle for anything less, then that means being will accept that some children will fall through the cracks.

To do this, we need to act now. I have picked up the mantle and will be leading a campaign of engagement over the summer to ensure that children are confident to return to school in September.

I am making it my mission to see 100% attendance on the first day of the September term, and to make this reality will take all of us. A national mission, for every child.

I need all of you to join me in that mission.