Almost a quarter of teachers’ appeals for help to prevent children regularly missing school are going ignored, i can reveal, as the Government faces calls to address the “national crisis” of persistent absence.

Data revealed through Freedom of Information requests shows that 23.9 per cent of Early Help referrals made between 2018 and 2022 were returned to schools without action.

The Early Help scheme was designed to ensure families get support from councils when problems first emerge that result in poor school attendance. It has seen appeals for support surge 156 per cent over the past four years.

Schools can make an Early Help referral to their local council if they suspect that regular truancy may be a symptom of more complex issues in a child’s life.

School-Home Support, a charity that helps get children back into school, said the proportion of referrals going ignored marked a “key factor in the worrying rise in school absence”.

Latest government figures show 23.4 per cent of all children across England are persistently absent from school – meaning they miss more than 10 per cent of the total school year.

It means about 1.6 million children are currently failing to attend more than five weeks of school each year. The figure has almost doubled since the pandemic, with 10.5 per cent of children regularly missing school in 2018/19.

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Jaine Stannard, chief executive of School-Home Support, told i: “The reality is that a lot of children that are persistently absent from school are never coming back. That is a national crisis.

“Schools are incredibly stretched at the moment. If they make a referral to Early Help and it just bounces straight back then what options are they left with? We need to tackle this now, because it’s only going to get worse.”

She also noted that while the Early Help system “used to be just that – early intervention – it now seems to be a sign of a family crisis”.

School-Home Support said it has seen a 56 per cent surge in demand for its services over the past year, as the cost of living crisis exacerbates existing pressures facing families.

The charity has launched a new campaign calling on the Government to commit £90.2m in extra funding to support the 19 priority education investment areas where persistent absence currently exceeds the national average.

It said the money would halve the cost to the Government of tackling persistent absence, with tailored support through School-Home Support costing around £1,000 per child each year, compared to the £1,965 annual cost to schools for each child regularly missing class.

Spending on early intervention services for children, which includes Early Help and other resources such as youth work, has been cut in 90 per cent of councils in England since 2015.

Some local authorities including Northamptonshire and Sunderland have seen their spending on early intervention fall by more than 70 per cent over the past eight years.

Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, told i: “The tragic truth is that we are systematically failing to provide the most basic support for vulnerable children and their families across this country.

“The consequences are there for all to see: millions of pupils now persistently absent from the classroom.”

Professor Major, who has previously advised the Government on social mobility, echoed concerns that the situation is quickly becoming a “national crisis”.

“This will have disastrous consequences for a whole generation of young people,” he said. “We desperately need a national strategy to help parents re-engage with schools to support their children’s learning.”

The Government launched an inquiry into persistent absence last month to investigate the causes and possible solutions to the growing issue of children regularly missing school.

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It has also opened a call for evidence to help understand concerns around absence and vulnerable children, after the most recent Government data showed disadvantaged pupils are more likely to miss school.

A third of all children eligible for free school meals were persistently absent from school last year, while around three in 10 pupils with special educational needs frequently missed class.

Shadow schools minister Stephen Morgan told i that the Government’s efforts to tackle persistent absence across the country must also address the growing mental health epidemic among young people.

“Well-being is essential to children’s learning, but the Government continues to neglect the crisis in children’s mental health,” he said.

“That means more children are missing school, putting their futures and opportunities at risk. Labour would provide access to professional mental health professionals in every school to get support to children as early as possible to tackle problems in time.”

Experts have also raised concerns that a switch to remote learning during the pandemic has eroded normal school routines for vast numbers of families across the country.

Amanda Spielman, chief executive of Ofsted, said recently that the “social contract” between parents and schools appeared to have broken down during the pandemic, with some families no longer believing they had to send their children to school.

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan has previously committed to introducing a register of all children not in school, but the plans remain in limbo after the Schools Bill was dropped in December.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The vast majority of children are in school and learning but we are offering targeted help for children who are regularly absent.

“This includes working with schools, trusts, governing bodies, and local authorities to identify pupils who are at risk of becoming, or who are, persistently absent, and working together to support that child to return to regular and consistent education.”

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