OVER the past few years, the number of children persistently absent from both primary and secondary schools has more than doubled. During the autumn and spring terms, more than 1.5m children (one in five students) were recorded as being persistently absent.

A child is considered persistently absent if they miss 10 per cent or more of their lessons and severe absence is defined as missing over 50 per cent of lessons. To put these absences into perspective, the Centre for Social Justice estimates missing 10 per cent of lessons equates to four weeks' worth of schooling in a year.

In the spring term of 2023, more than 140,000 children missed 50 per cent of their lessons, double the figure from the autumn term of 2019. If the current trend continues, based on the Department of Education's data, the number of severely absent children will exceed 200,000 by 2026.

In County Durham, school absences have risen by 377 per cent (from 247 in 2016/17 to 1,178 in 2022/23) and 95 per cent in Darlington (from 122 in 2016/17 to 238 in 2022/23) compared to national average increase of 202 per cent.

These alarming trends are deeply concerning as they hamper educational progress and put children at risk of falling behind their peers as well as being drawn into criminality.

Children who are regularly absent from school are vulnerable to exploitation. They are often targeted by individuals and gangs who seek to take advantage of their absence from school and lack of supervision. This can include grooming for sexual exploitation or being coerced into criminal activities and drawn into the dangerous world of drug use and drug dealing. The absence of regular contact with teachers and other responsible adults makes it easier for these predators to manipulate and exploit our children.

Prolonged school absence also deprives children of education and limits their future opportunities and potential. Education plays a crucial role in shaping a child's development, providing them with essential knowledge, skills, and opportunities for personal growth. When children miss out on education, they are denied the chance to acquire these fundamental building blocks for their future success.

Without a proper education, children may struggle to find stable employment, leading to financial insecurity and limited opportunities. They may also face difficulties in developing essential life skills, such as critical thinking, problem-solving, and effective communication.

To address these risks, I am investing in a range of diversionary activities and targeted support for those who are either excluded from school or who have poor school attendance to help prevent them being drawn into crime and anti-social behaviour.

I have also seen the extraordinary efforts schools go to prevent these absences and the relentless work teachers do with parents and students to overcome the barriers to improve school attendance.

Gone are the days of the fearsome ‘Kiddy catcher’ who patrolled the streets seeking out unaccompanied children and the opportunity to return them to school and with their demise the threat of being caught wandering the street without a just cause.

So going forward, we need a long-term funded plan to reduce persistent school absences. It’s vitally important we collectively identify and support children at risk of persistent absenteeism and provide them with targeted interventions to address the underlying causes of their absence. It’s imperative we prioritise school attendance to prevent crime, deter offending and exploitation if we are to build safer, stronger and more resilient communities.