Thousands more violent offenders will be created by ministers’ failure to get children back to school after the pandemic, analysis has suggested.
A generation of “ghost children” who have given up on school since Covid are at risk of turning to crime because of official neglect of their futures, experts have warned.
Up to 9,000 more young offenders, including 2,000 violent criminals, could be on Britain’s streets by 2027 because of a rise in school absence, according to calculations based on official studies.
The surge in offending would cost taxpayers £100 million, according to campaigners, who say the government needs to step in now to save money as well as turning around children’s lives.
Persistent absence from school has doubled since the pandemic, with 1.7 million pupils now missing at least 10 per cent of school time. This includes a doubling of those who miss 50 per cent of lessons, with 125,000 now skipping most of their schooling.
MPs and campaigners have repeatedly accused ministers of failing to take the issue seriously enough as numbers stay stubbornly high two years after schools reopened. Mentoring programmes are reaching a small fraction of absentees.
Allies of Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, said she saw absence as “a really dangerous hangover from the pandemic” and was making tackling it “a top priority”. She is beginning an attendance drive over the summer, with schools given help to track down missing pupils and confront the reasons that lead them to skip lessons.
A rise in mental health problems and a culture of staying at home during lockdown are thought to be among reasons why absence leapt during the pandemic. Many missing children are likely to be poorer and more vulnerable.
Absence rates rise with age, with a third of Year 11 pupils now missing on at least 10 per cent of days. The Centre for Social Justice think tank has warned that many children left behind by the education system are at risk of being drawn into crime, urging ministers to redouble efforts to protect the public as well as to help children themselves.
“Alongside stunting academic attainment, children with a history of school absence are around three times more likely to commit an offence than those who routinely attend school,” Andy Cook, chief executive of the Centre for Social Justice, said.
“For the sake of these children’s future — and for the safety of our streets — government must stop tinkering around the edges and accelerate the national rollout of attendance mentors, ensuring all children benefit from an education that sets them up for life.”
The think tank cited research by the Department for Education and the Ministry of Justice, which found that 2 per cent of children who attend school normally go on to offend before the age of 17, compared with 8.7 per cent of those who are persistently absent. Figures from the Office for National Statistics found that 37 per cent of persistently absent children went on to offend, compared with 11 per cent of children who attended normally.
Applying these estimates to the cohort of 634,000 children who will be in Year 11 in 2024-25, it is feared that an additional 8,894 pupils could go on to commit an offence, of which 2,173 might involve violence.
The former Conservative leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said: “Abandoning a generation of children to absence will send a shockwave through society.”
Although the government research stresses it is not possible to prove a causal link between missing school and offending, the think tank argues that teenagers who spend time on the streets without the discipline of education are more likely to be drawn into crime. Robin Walker, Tory chairman of the education select committee, welcomed “an important analysis”, saying: “There is a correlation between children who miss large amounts of school and being both victims and perpetrators of crime”.
Ministers have pledged a mentoring scheme that will reach 1,700 children but the Centre for Social Justice argues that this needs to go much further.
Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, said: “This is a stark reminder of the dangers arising from the Conservative government’s lack of grip on our education system.”
A government spokeswoman said: “We are working to prevent youth crime through our £200 million Youth Endowment Fund, which aims to give young people most at risk the opportunity to turn away from violence.”
(Sorce: The Times)