Scotland’s Lost Pupils

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FOI requests show dramatic pre-covid increase in long-term absence; think tank calls for more data and more support

Answers to Freedom of Information requests to all local authorities in Scotland have revealed the extent of long-term absence in Scotland’s schools. 

The Commission on School Reform, the independent group of education experts set up by the think tank Reform Scotland, asked local authorities how many children were at school less than 50%. The results cover 2016/17 to 2018/19, to ensure the figures were not skewed by the Coronavirus pandemic.

The responses revealed that 8,542 pupils were absent more than half the time, not including Midlothian Council (did not respond to repeated requests) and Aberdeen City Council (does not hold the data).

This represents a 17% increase in the two years since 2016/17, and coincides with an increase in the waiting times for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).

The full tables can be seen in the Commission’s latest report, Scotland’s Lost Pupils, which can be downloaded below.

Commenting on the figures, Keir Bloomer, Chair of the Commission on School Reform, said:

“It shouldn’t have taken our Freedom of Information requests to bring to light these distressing figures. We are talking about nearly 10,000 children who are off school more than they are in school; not receiving the education they need, not receiving the job training they need, not receiving the start they need to live happy, healthy, independent lives. And this all pre-dates Covid.

“Our education system needs to be adapted to offer better monitoring and support to children and parents at risk of long-term absence, whether because of mental health issues or the many other potential reasons.

“This would be an investment not only in those children and their future, but would also ensure that those children develop into productive adults who are not dependent on lifelong support from the state.”

Gillian Bell, the mother of a 14-year-old, who prior to Covid had not been in school for over two years, said:

“GPs, psychologists, medics of all sorts don’t seem to be able to deliver the health care required by society.   A child being taken to A&E for a mental health crisis, might not even be seen by a doctor.  They may have been taken in by the police.  The child will be sent home, with no support and put on a waiting list for CAMHS.  They may have to wait months to get a letter for an initial appointment.  When they finally get to the top of that list, possibly 18 months later – their initial assessment may go to another team, to be assessed and put on another waiting list. Or worse, CAMHS might turn up an hour late for a home appointment, then leave after 15 minutes saying ‘they can’t help you, your child’s problem is behavioural. Social work will help.’ 

“The system is driving children and their families to despair, those working within the systems seem utterly powerless to change anything.  They know there are problems, both in health and education, however, nobody seems to be able to take responsibility and make things better. It is impacting parents ability to earn a living and pushing many families into poverty.  

“Thankfully, after a long search we have now found the right school for my daughter, she is settling in and starting to thrive.”

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