What could increased absence from schools mean for the criminal justice system? - Dr Alan Billings

I recently wrote about an occasion when South Yorkshire police found at the Meadowhall Shopping Centre 55 children who were not in school. Most were there with a parent or family member, so this was condoned absence rather than truancy.

Nevertheless, it raises questions about what the schools knew and what the parents and others thought they were doing. But leaving that aside, it did make me wonder just how big a problem we have with children missing from school and what becomes of them.

After all, as well as missing valuable days of education, they may be making themselves very vulnerable and open to exploitation, sexual and criminal.

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The problem goes beyond South Yorkshire. According to Dame Rachel de Souza, the Children’s Commissioner, last year, just under one quarter of pupils – 22.9 per cent – were persistently absent from the classroom in our region. And this absenteeism is reflected across the country.

Children's Commissioner for England Dame Rachel de Souza talks to children. PIC: Aaron Chown/PA WireChildren's Commissioner for England Dame Rachel de Souza talks to children. PIC: Aaron Chown/PA Wire
Children's Commissioner for England Dame Rachel de Souza talks to children. PIC: Aaron Chown/PA Wire

So when the Commissioner called a round table for professionals in Yorkshire, the Humber and North Lincolnshire to discuss this, I joined. This was in the Guildhall in Hull, though I participated by remote link.

Those at the table represented organisations and agencies she thought could contribute to bringing about 100 per cent school attendances.

The statistics for persistent absence by secondary school age children in our four local authority areas show a marked increase since the pandemic.

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It would seem that during the lockdowns, some young people formed habits of not going to school that proved hard to break afterwards. The Commissioner had undertaken an Attendance Audit during which children had pointed out what was going wrong in their lives that led to non-attendance.

The issues sometimes lay within the school but sometimes not. There were children who lived in poor housing, children who struggled with public transport, children who were carers, children who had health problems, children in care, children who found little in the curriculum to engage with, children who were excluded.

One persistently absent 9-year-old boy said: “My mum gets sick quite a lot. If my dad has to go to work to earn some money then I need to stay home and look after my mum and little brother.”

Children with Special Education Needs (SEND) were especially at risk as a result of lack of support while the demand for children and adolescent mental health services had risen dramatically and as a result, there were long waiting lists with some unable to get onto a waiting list in the first place.

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It was a pretty bleak picture and not one that was going to change quickly even when the issues had been identified.

As well as having a general concern, I was also focused on what all this could mean for the criminal justice system in coming years. If children are not in school, they fall behind with their education, and the more this happens the more difficult it is for them to progress into a job, an apprenticeship or college. They may be on the streets and vulnerable or online and equally vulnerable. A recent joint study from the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Education showed that in 2019-20, 81 per cent of children who committed offences had a history of non-attendance at school.

A shortened version of the Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire’s latest blog post.