Europe, UK, Human Rights, Opinion

The British Education System Lets Down the Most Vulnerable

121 million children worldwide do not receive any education whatsoever. This is a startling statistic from the Global Partnership for Education, an international organization focused on getting children in the world’s poorest countries into full-time education.

And indeed, the vast majority of this 121 million are from poorer countries. For example, UNICEF estimates that 30% of children from Western and Central Africa do not attend school. When we consider the lack of food, civil conflict and abject poverty faced by millions across the globe, perhaps this figure isn’t actually all that shocking.

So let me give you a statistic that truly is startling. According to, the UK‘s online governmental portal, 5% of all British children are not in full-time education. With over 10 million 5-to-18-year-olds in the UK, that accounts for around 500,000 children not receiving education on a daily basis. Now, granted, many of these young people have very good reasons for not attending. Ill health, travel and living abroad account for a large percentage.

Slipping Through the Education System

An article published by the BBC in 2016 claimed that ‘more than 30,000 children were missing from schools’ and that ‘almost 4,000 could not be traced by the authorities’. So where are these lost children?

The British government claims that in the school year 2015/16 a total of 339,360 pupils were excluded from British schools on a fixed-term (temporary) basis. These pupils must by law return to school after five days, so they cannot account for these ‘missing’ pupils.

The key statistic is the number of pupils permanently excluded from schools. According to the same data source, 6685 pupils were forever expelled from their schools in that same year, never to return. Consider the fact that this is just one year, and that more leave every year, and it is easy to see how so many children are ‘lost’.

So how does the British government explain this figure? How does it rationalize it to the masses? Their answer is ‘PRU’.

Pupil Referral Units

Pupil Referral Units are alternative education provisions set up by the British government to provide education to those young people that cannot attend mainstream school. Although there are myriad reasons for attending a PRU, emotional and behavioral difficulties are the most common. These are the children that act out, that fight, that use drugs or that suffer from acute psychological conditions. Essentially, these are the kids that need the most help.

During the autumn term of 2016, 27,745 pupils were enrolled in PRUs across the country. Couple that figure with the 4,000 unaccounted for and I think we’ve found where the BBC got their figure from. The lost children are hidden in PRUs.

Now I have worked in a PRU. It is immensely rewarding and fulfilling work. For four years I spent my time teaching, supporting and building relationships with the neediest pupils in one of Britain’s major cities. The contact I had with those young people was exceptional. The rest of the job, however, was not.

It is a little-known fact that government-funded alternative education, run by local city councils, is in a bad way. From my experience, and from the experiences of colleagues working in schools across the country, funding for PRUs and their like is critically low. Due to this, service is reliant upon motivated, creative and resourceful staff and therefore inconsistent as staff come and go. Without funding for the proper resources and technology to engage with these disaffected youngsters no wonder attendance and attainment in the UK is so low.

Same Criteria for Troubled Students

The other issue with the way Britain provides for in-need children is that their success is measured using the same criteria as pupils in mainstream schools. They are still expected to make two stages of progress in each age group. They are still expected to attend every day for 38 weeks of each year. All this despite the problems they face at home and within themselves. It is unrealistic to expect a teenager whose parents are drug dependent to be fully focussed on learning about verbs and nouns day in, day out.

Pupil attendance in PRUs is dismally low. I have worked with pupils that turn up maybe once a term. Average attendance across the school was somewhere around 50%. Conversations with the young people revealed what they did instead of attending school: drug dealing and gang violence inevitably came out top of the list. You’d be amazed how many disaffected youths find playing a games console boring. When asked why they would rather skip school than attend the answer is almost always, ‘School’s boring’.

The Importance of Funding Edcuation

Without funding schools are boring. There’s no money for cool science experiments, school trips, iPads, teacher training or pupil incentives. Without these things school is, inevitably, sitting at a desk with a pen in your hand.

So no wonder we lose children. No wonder young people become disillusioned with education. No wonder so many under-18s drop off the radar to pursue careers in drug dealing and petty crime. It’s easier for them to embrace a life they know already than to be neglected and mismanaged on a daily basis.

How are Other Nations Doing Education Wise?

The UK has a staggering number of children missing from the education system. But how about the rest of the world? Well, the variety is astounding.

Looking at similarly developed nations, France has a national secondary school attendance rate of 98.95% compared to the UK‘s 95%. Attendance is at 98.12% in the Netherlands and 98.86% in Germany.

The stand-out example, however, has got to be Finland. 100% of Finnish pupils attend school every single day.

How can this be? How is it that Finland has not lost a single pupil and yet in the UK we have an apparent 30,000 missing from the system? The answer has to do with the way the Finns manage their education system. In Finland, you start school aged 7. This gives time to form strong familial bonds and to ensure the child is ready to start their education. Finnish education is completely free, including university. Education is viewed as a fundamental right, and the Finns believe that no-one should receive less of an education than anyone else.

There are probably as many in-need children in Finland as there are in the UK, but evidently, they fare better. This is likely due to a cultural difference in the approach to education. When a pupil is excluded from school, they are not abandoned. They are given a maximum of three months out of school and are given an individualized personal study plan to keep them on track and busy during that time. When they return to school they are supported emotionally and educationally to address their issues and to get back on track.

Education: It’s in the Politics

So why can’t we do this in the UK? The Independent claimed in August last year that ‘The problems in Britain’s education system are political in origin and they require a political solution’. The point the article makes is that governmental budget cuts paved the way for schools and teachers to underperform. It goes on to say, ‘Successive governments have neglected and underfunded these young people’.

And the point is valid: we can’t just blame the Tories, or the Labour party, or anyone else individually. It is a cultural issue borne from decades of neglect and underfunding that has left a gaping hole in the education system of the UK. A hole wide enough for 30,000 children to fall through without a trace.

About Jeremy Wood

Jeremy is an ex-teacher, ex-youth worker, ex-coffee taster, ex-business owner and ex-career starter. He now spends his time writing and advising young people how to choose a career path. Having studied psychology and sociology, Jeremy has a passion to understand people: how they work, what makes them tick and why they have an uncontrollable urge to destroy themselves, each other and the planet.

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