London truancy figures 'insane' as up to a quarter of teenagers regularly skip school

Truancy has been a particular problem since Covid
Truancy has been a particular problem since Covid

The number of children who persistently miss school is “insane”, experts warned on Thursday as data shows more than a quarter of secondary school pupils in parts of London regularly fail to attend.

The number of pupils classed as persistently absent — missing at least a day a fortnight — spiralled during Covid and remains above pre-pandemic levels.

Education leaders have called for schools to re-think the way they tackle persistent absence in a bid to take control of the issue.

Theresa Allotey, founder of Meliora High School, an alternative provision for students persistently absent in Enfield, said: “The way we have been doing it clearly isn’t working — we need some new approaches.”

She added: “Sometimes Covid is relied upon as a crutch to justify why things aren’t quite as they were before. When we have got back to normal on so many other things why can’t we get back to normal with school?”

More than one in five children in England are now classed as persistently absent from school, Government figures show. Before the pandemic, the figure was one in 10.

Evening Standard analysis of the latest provisional data found that in in Camden, Croydon and Westminster more than a quarter of secondary school pupils were persistently absent. The highest rate was in Croydon at 27.1 per cent, against the national average of 25.3 per cent. The data also highlights huge variations across the capital, with the primary school persistent absent rate in Newham (20.9 per cent) almost double that in Richmond (10.8 per cent).

The national primary school average rate was 16.2 per cent. Ms Allotey, who left her post as COO of Westminster Academy to set up Meliora this year, said students are feeling more anxious, and exam pressure and social media is adding to their mental health pressures.

She said students are also missing school due to illness, holidays, friendship issues and bullying, adding that an “insane amount of people” are not going to school regularly. “There has got to be something that’s going wrong,“ she said.

“Either they don’t see the purpose in school or there’s an issue they need help with, or we just have to take a different angle. The way we have been doing it clearly isn’t working.”

She added: “We need some new approaches. The Department for Education has an attendance alliance that meets every month… but there’s no real drive.”

It comes after parenting experts reported a rise in the number of families seeking help from child behaviour experts to deal with truancy. Refusal to go to school was the primary reason a quarter of parents gave for seeking help in a survey by parenting programme Triple P. This found truancy was a bigger issue for parents than aggression/violence (15 per cent), mental health (13 per cent) and financial issues (9 per cent).

Matt Buttery, of Triple P, said: “Children missing school because of anxiety is increasingly becoming a pressing concern for parents in post-Covid Britain... we need to address it.”

Ms Allotey, 42, set up Meliora after she herself was classed as persistently absent as a schoolgirl. When it launches in April it will run 12-week programmes to teach students life skills such as the importance of eye contact and how to cook.

Research by the charity Magic Breakfast found schools that give pupils breakfast have 26 fewer half days of absence per year in a class of 30 than schools without.

A Department for Education spokeswoman said it has launched 18 new attendance hubs, increasing the total to 32, and announced £15 million to expand a pilot mentoring programme.