The Invisible Children

    An unknown number of seriously ill children are slipping through attendance statistics. The methods of record-keeping are inconsistent nation-wide, which means no central database keeps a record on the actual size of the group. A distressing consequence of this is that the effects of long-term illness are widely unknown, making it difficult for the policymakers to identify the sense of urgency they should feel.

    A new report has today been published, highlighting the concerning experiences of children and young people who due to ill health cannot attend school. This cohort of children has been dubbed the ‘invisible children’ due to their lack of representation in national data sets, which makes it impossible to know the scale and long-term consequences of the issue.

    The report was written following a roundtable discussion on 11th June 2019 with educators, hospital education staff, parents, young people, and civil servants, who came together to discuss the educational and social problems facing young people with a physical or mental health condition which prevents them attending school.

    Incomplete national data

    During the discussion the Department for Education explained that of the 783,400 children recorded as ‘persistently absent’ in 2017/18 (i.e. with an overall absence rate of 10%+), 41.6% missed school due to illness. With different ways to interpret and report ‘illness’ from school to school, there are serious concerns that we do not have detailed, nor reliable, national statistics on the number of children not attending school due to long-term illness.

    Additionally, whilst local authorities have data on how many young people are home educated, they are in the dark over the reason for that child being homeschooled. When a child is off-rolled the school must inform their local authority, but they do not have to provide a specific reason, such as due to physical illness or mental health. It is difficult for a cash-strapped council to provide appropriate support without knowing who and how many young people are in need.

    The negative effects of school absence

    Experiences show that when a child is out of education, even for a short period, the consequences can be detrimental to their long-term progress. Missing out on subject information required to pass exams can mean fewer opportunities when grades become the benchmark to differentiate applicants. In addition confidence can be damaged, as friendship groups advance without them, making reintegration to the classroom and playground a daunting, or sometimes impossible, task. These consequences can last well into adulthood, as university and employment opportunities suffer the effects of absenteeism. Not only does that affect the individual’s economic circumstances, but it could well impact society as a whole when childhood potential is not fulfilled due to failings in the system.

    “3.5 years of isolation due to illness has had a significant impact on my son’s mental health as well as his education. He is no longer the socially confident boy he once was and now struggles to interact with children his own age. Isolation is used as a punishment in various establishments, more should be done to ensure that children isolated due to physical or mental illness do not feel punished, rejected and socially excluded.” - Mother of child unable to attend school due to cancer

    Attendees remarked that they had witnessed excellent provision, from dedicated school staff, to inspirational hospital schools, as well as more modern approaches such as using the AV1 robot to attend school remotely. However, there was also the common belief that not all children were receiving this kind of provision. There are pockets of excellent practice driven on an individual level, but we need systemic change at a policy level to ensure everyone is supported.

    Open statutory guidance

    Educational provision for children out of school due to illness appears to be a postcode lottery, with some families having to fight for 3 hours of home tuition a week, whilst others offered 15 hours. This was thought to be, in part, due to the open statutory guidance which allows for flexible interpretation, as well as financial pressures faced by schools and councils.

    Looking forward it is thought that the first step to improving the lives and outcomes of this cohort of currently invisible children is to collect much richer data by joining up existing data sets, asking more questions through the Millennium Cohort Study (UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies) and building a model to predict future numbers of children in this category to enable proactiveness. Achieving this should cause the issue to rise up the political agenda, enabling changes to statutory guidance, and leading to more support for invisible children across the UK.