Facts and figures

get the facts straight

The standard of public discussion around attendance and around children who are ‘not in school’, whether because they are home educated, or are children missing education for whatever reason has been poor. We need careful, considered and solutions focused debate. Instead senior politicians and public bodies have been guilty of hyperbole, using cherry picked figures out of context and lurid tabloid-esque depictions of children as ‘ghost children’ – ignoring the facts that many of these so-called ghost children have families fighting hard to get them support. All has been used to justify this power grab of a Bill.

The Counting Children coalition was set up to provide more reasonable discussion and to challenge these inaccurate claims, on which demands for ever more ways to count children are justified.

The lives of real children and young people are hurt by such wanton misrepresentation. We owe it to them to get the facts straight which will enable us to find solutions which actually help.



“These are not ‘ghost children’ but children ghosted by the professionals and services meant to support and protect them.”

Square Peg

“Disincentives, such as fines, known to not work in boosting attendance.”

What is persistent absence?

Now – 10%
2015 – 15%
2010 – 20%

Data already held on children, absence levels and fines

Data already held on children

Schools already know when an individual student is absent. There is no compelling reason for the national government to have this information, even less so in real time.

A huge amount of data is already held on children within scope of the ‘Children Not in School’ registers, both by the Department for Education and other services and departments.

Firstly, to call them Children Not in School is inaccurate as the registers are much broader. Children in Alternative Provision, part-time or flexi-schooled children who are on school registers are to be included, as well as those electively home educated, or children missing education.

Those children who are on a State maintained school roll already – and controversially – have their named level data shared with the Department for Education.

As the Counting Children briefing explains “Children’s named data is sent every term from every state funded educational setting for children age 2-19 to the Department for Education termly, in the School Census. This is one of seven different national census collections. Another is the Children-in-Need (“CIN”) census for which Local Authorities collect detailed, child-level information about all children who are referred to children’s social care services, even if no further action is taken. This includes children looked after (“CLA”), those supported in their families or independently (“CSF/I”), and children who are the subject of a child protection plan. The detailed personal confidential data sent to the Department for Education includes all vulnerable children, including: unborn children; babies; older children; young carers; disabled children; and those who are in secure settings. The highly sensitive personal records include details of adoption, disability, sexual abuse, neglect, and “family dysfunction”. There is another separate named pupil-level collection of personal data from every child in Alternative Provision sent by Local Authorities to the Department for Education on an annual basis 5 and that already includes other AP unregistered providers.”

Every local authority holds registers of children who are home educated and registers for children that could possibly be children missing education.  These include every child who has been deregistered from school. Schools – both independent and State maintained – have a legal obligation to inform local authorities of any non-standard transition, detailed in the Education (Pupil Registration) Regulations (England) 2006 and The Education (Pupil Registration) Regulations (Amendments) 2016. Local Authorities choose between fifteen different codes to record the reason for the deregistration, including Elective Home Education.

There is no suggestion that the home educated children who might not be on one of the above databases are not on other ones, either those held by the local authority and by central government and other services.

“The only children we can see may be children who are not known to any services at all by
choice, and a new compulsory duty on parents to register will not solve that. In fact the
suggestion that police will have access to these registers or that they could be used
punitively is more likely to drive parents making the decision to become less likely to choose
to engage with any services including health.”

Levels of absence

With the exception of this year where inclusion of covid figures have pushed up overall and sickness figures absence has remained approximately level since 2011. Overall absence in 2011 was 4.7 as it was in 2021.

Historically absence has been higher. In 1994-95 7.6% total absence and in 2003-04 – 6.7% of school days. The rules around absence were different and the way absence was calculated was different. Since 2013 headteachers have only been allowed to authorise absence in “exceptional circumstances”.

Department for Education figures on pupil absence in schools in England

Approximately half of all absence is for illness. Levels of absence due to illness are at about the same level as adult absence from work due to illness. Increases in rates of unauthorised absence are attributed to unauthorised holidays.

2021/22 6.9% absence, 4% absence for illness, includes covid, 1.6% unauthorised absence
2020/21 4.7% absence, 2.1% illness (but 21.3% because of Covid) 1.1% unauthorised absence
2018/19 4.9% absence, 2.5% absence for illness, 1.3% unauthorised absence
2017/18 4.2% absence, 2.6% absence for illness, 1.2% unauthorised absence
2016/17 4.7% absence, 2.6% absence for illness, 1.3% unauthorised absence

Absence for disadvantaged children and those with EHCP
The analysis from Datalab shows the percentage of school missed at different stages by children with an EHCP and also those children classed as ‘disadvantaged’ at various stages of amounts of school missed. It shows clearly that children who have EHCPs and children who are classed as disadvantaged miss school at higher rates.

Approximately 93% of all pupils with an EHCP on roll in state-funded primary schools were in attendance on 12 May, same on 28 Apr. Approximately 93% of all pupils with a social worker on roll in all state-funded primary schools were in attendance on 12 May, up from 92% on 28 Apr. Pupils with a social worker are considered ‘children in need’. the number of pupils eligible for FSM has increased from 1.44 million (17.3% of all pupils) in January 2020 to 1.74 million (20.8% of all pupils) in January 2021. Approximately 94% of all pupils eligible for FSM on roll in state-funded primary schools were in attendance on 12 May, same on 28 Apr. [DfE data, May 27, 2022]

Missing 50% plus school
However there are children who miss substantially more. In 2018/19 0.8% of children, 60,244 children and young people missed 50% or more of school. 17,526 children and young people missed 99%. (Figures show 2020/21 as 1.1% missing 50% or more, a total of 81,652. This was due to ‘special schools’ being open over lockdown but not all parents chosing to send their child.)

Fines and penalties

Penalties have been increasing year on year bar the most recent year which was markedly lower for fines and penalties. The government has written to local authorities to resume their prior levels of ‘parental responsibility measures’.

Department for Education data

2020/21 45,809 fines for unauthorised absence (34,933 holidays – 76% of fines), 82 fines for lateness (0.2% of fines), eight parenting orders, 17 education supervision orders (issued by just eight councils) 7,800 parenting contracts were offered (of which three-quarters were accepted by parents) Seven in ten authorities offered no parenting contracts in the last academic year.

2018/19 333,388 fines for unauthorised absence (288,239 holidays), 21,756 parents prosecuted for non-payment, 10,272 parents prosecuted non-attendance, 117 parenting orders, 34 education supervision orders, 18,300 parenting contracts

2017/18 260,900 fines (85% of these were for unauthorised holidays), 19,518 parents prosecuted non-payment, 10,272 parents prosecuted non-attendance

2016/17 149,300 fines (77.5% of these were for unauthorised holidays), 13,324 parents prosecuted non-payment, 10,081 parents prosecuted non-attendance

2012/13 52, 370 fines issued, 7,806 parents prosecuted for non-payment

2009/10 25,657 fines issued

Children Missing Education

Every single local authority in England already holds databases with the names of children they have concerns might be children missing education.

There has been anxiety that Children Missing Education figures will inevitably not include every child who should be in scope. It should be noted however that any annual figures will be higher than the actual number as they will include resolved cases, children who are in receipt of education but are included in numbers due to lack of information about their educational provision, and children who are briefly out of education and then the issue resolved.

For example the 2017 National Children’s Bureau (NCB) Children Missing Education reported that 2015/16 figures for children recorded as missing education was 49,187.

The FOI which underpinned the report asked for children missing at any point over the 365 days of 2015-16 rather than a snapshot in time on any given day.

There is also evidence of poor practice by local authorities around classification of home educating families as ‘children missing education’. 66% of local authorities said that when a home educating family moved out of area that they were at this point classed as ‘children missing education’.

There are a substantial number of children missing education who do so because of gaps in the system.

errors in claims

Causation or correlation?

It matters.

Approx 50% of those sentenced to custody were known to be eligible for free school meals, according to the Ministry of Justice. However, as they caution, there are many young people who are eligible for free school meals who do not offend.

Moreover, it would clearly be a nonsense to suggest that free school meals were the cause of young people offending. Or even more ludicrously that free school meals must be cracked down on to reduce offending. Yet this is exactly what the government is doing with absence from school.

There is no evidence which shows that low attendance causes negative outcomes, although it certainly correlates with them. Absence, rather than being the cause may – we contend – be a symptom of underlying difficulties which need to be resolved in order for children to be able to attend. These are not necessarily problems located in the child, changes may need to be made to the school system.

Children’s Commissioner says 1.8 million children persistently absent

Context is everything here

The period that the Children’s Commissioner is refering to was for 2020/21, during the worldwide pandemic and includes absence because of coronavirus, which does continue to be a problem.

Analysis from Datalab breaks down the figures showing the percentage of absence due to illness, that which was authorised and that which was unauthorised.

While coronavirus was a significant problem, and indeed remains one for many people, there are no grounds for holding parents and families responsible for it or to insist on tough new measures on the basis of it.


100% target  rhetoric

Fails to differentiate between authorised and unauthorised

The Children’s Commissioner has set a highly publicised target of 100% attendance for the first day back of school. She said this is “not an arbitrary target” and that the government live tracking of attendance would significantly help. 

The justification she gives for this, in her report ‘New Insights into School Absence, Evidence from three multi-academy trusts’ is: “Children who had an unauthorised absence on any day in the first week of
term, experienced an overall unauthorised absence rate of 25% compared
to an overall unauthorised absence rate of two percent for pupils who
didn’t miss any sessions in the first week.”

First, the data is from just three multi-academy trusts. Second, there is no evidence to suggest that a child attending on the first day would make any difference to the ongoing absence. Third, and most fundamental, she fails to differentiate between authorised and unauthorised absence. 

A 100% attendance target takes no account of the realities of life, of bereavement, illness, homelessness or other extreme domestic situations. 

Changing attitudes to term-time absence

Term-time absence has not always been viewed as a problem, even by local authorities. 

Prior to 2013 holiday up to 10 days was mostly condoned.

2016 Local Government Association position on parents taking children out of school during term time. (After Jon Platt won his case in High Court and before losing case in Supreme Court in 2017.) 2016 An LGA spokesperson said: “It shouldn’t be that a tragedy has to befall a family for a child to get leave during term-time. There are many more joyous and positive occasions in life when consideration should be given to granting leave requests, such as a wedding or perhaps a sporting event involving a family member. These can have social and emotional benefits which are of lasting value and support to young people.

“And there are just times when a family should be able to come together to celebrate without worrying about prosecution or being fined.

“Blanket bans do not work and as today’s High Court ruling shows, it’s a system that is not always enforceable. We want to work with the Government to find a sensible solution whereby every family has the option to spend time together.

“While councils fully support the Department for Education’s stance on every child being in school every day, there are occasions when parental requests should be given individual consideration and a common sense approach applied.”

Tough new rules on term-time holidays should be overturned, leaving headteachers to decide whether to allow pupils to be taken out of school, council leaders have said.”

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