Hunger, homelessness and gang grooming: just a normal week at one London academy

<span>Headteacher Zoe Thompson says one of her biggest worries is the surge in parents taking their children out of school.</span><span>Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian</span>
Headteacher Zoe Thompson says one of her biggest worries is the surge in parents taking their children out of school.Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

“It’s the biggest story, mark my words. I think it’s really worrying. There are going to be dead children.” Zoë Thompson is not a drama queen. She studied physics at King’s College London, and thought she would work for Nasa. In fact, she went into teaching and has been principal of a large academy in a tough corner of north-east London for six years. In that time she has seen it all, but the surge in the number of children being taken out of school by parents on the pretext of home education is alarming, she says.

Elective home education (EHE) is just one of the issues that comes up during a week-long visit to Oasis Academy Hadley (OAH) in Ponders End, Enfield – an all-through community school catering for 1,600 pupils aged two to 19 – to see first-hand how schools, students and their families are faring in the aftermath of Covid, as the cost of living crisis continues.

Thompson, who is warm, extrovert and dedicated to giving her pupils the same opportunities as their wealthier peers, discusses attendance, mental health, children not getting enough food, families living in hotels, gangs, and the recruitment crisis in English schools as new graduates reject a career in teaching and qualified teachers leave for Dubai. But it is her warning about EHE that stands out.

The school

Oasis Academy Hadley, which is part of the Oasis Community Learning multi-academy trust, is rated “good” by Ofsted. Like most of the 53 schools in the Oasis chain, it is located in an area with high levels of deprivation, but is high in ambition for its students and serves its local community well.

More than half of pupils are on free school meals, and many more are growing up in poverty, their parents on low incomes, working as cleaners, Uber drivers and school meal assistants. Mobility is high, with families moving in and out of the area. “Almost every day someone is joining or leaving here,” says Thompson. Pupils, who often start at a disadvantage, make strong progress, and by the end of sixth form, 70% achieve A*-B grades and 95% of sixth-formers go on to university, including four to Cambridge this year.

Situated a stone’s throw from Ponders End station, the academy building – designed by John McAslan, one of Britain’s leading architects – is modern and uplifting. Inside, the white walls are plastered with triumphant “Did it here” posters featuring smiling students photographed next to impressive results, and their destination university. All 72 classes are named after global universities, so Stanford, Princeton, Oxford and Cambridge are part of pupils’ vocabulary.

The head of sixth form’s office is covered with thank you cards from grateful pupils. A significant number come back to teach at OAH, including the head of sixth form herself, Yesim Albay. One pupil told Ofsted that school is “better than the outside world”. Many stay late because it can be hard to study at home because of family demands and cramped conditions. An A-level student with caring responsibilities at home told the Guardian: “They really care about us.”

The school prides itself on being inclusive – no child has been permanently excluded for six years. If pupils are struggling in mainstream lessons, rather than send to alternative provision outside the school, there are special provisions within school that offer a full curriculum and extra support, followed by reintegration.

Home education

The week I visit, new figures published by the Department for Education showed the number of children in England being home schooled increased by more than 10,000 last autumn, increasing the total to 92,000 children on record as being home schooled on a single day last term, compared with 80,900 at the same point in autumn 2022.

At OAH, though it is only halfway through the academic year, elective home education (EHE) numbers are already where they were for the whole of 2022-23. Five pupils have already been removed from the school roll to be home educated, and there are more in the pipeline. A further eight are listed as children missing education (CME), a separate classification covering school-age children not enrolled at school and receiving “unsuitable” education. Last year the figure was six in total.

Once a parent notifies the school that they wish to home educate, usually in a brief email, Thompson and her team try their utmost to persuade the family to keep the child in school, offering a variety of support measures. If that fails, the school’s responsibility ends. There are no checks, no follow-ups and no questions asked. “It makes me shudder,” says Thompson. “It really does.”

It has become a national problem, especially since Covid, often driven by unmet special education needs, school anxiety and other mental health problems. In other scenarios, struggling parents where concerns have already been flagged may find it easier to just take their child out of school.


Attendance is a huge issue for schools across England post-Covid. At OAH the level is 93.6% which is above the national average, but it involves a massive effort by staff to get children in. The school will chase, provide lifts, make phone calls and pay home visits to struggling parents. Some have lost control of their child, while others have run out of energy or have stopped seeing the value of school.

Children and staff are also more likely to take time off sick since Covid, with staff absence a third higher than five years ago. On a wet Thursday when I visit, 12 teachers are off sick, and more parents are taking their children out of school for term-time holidays because they are so much cheaper.

In some cases families are issued with a £60 penalty notice. The week the Guardian visits, the government announced that fines will go up 33% to £80. Those who delay payment will have fines raised from £120 to £160. An Oasis founder, Steve Chalke, made his view plain on social media. “School attendance has never returned to pre-pandemic levels. So fines for parents of children who are missing without permission are set to face even bigger fines. But it won’t work. Why? Because families need support rather than penalties and the fines in place now don’t work.”


“Our communities are finding life harder,” says Thompson. “There are lots of social issues, especially since Covid – mental health issues, financial issues. Life for lots of families is more volatile and these things have an impact on children. People are worried about the cost of living, they’re worried about paying the rent, covering their bills. Things are more challenging than they used to be.”

Teachers describe the signs: a child with a single button left on their shirt, a pupil walking around with torn trousers his parents can’t afford to replace. Some families are struggling to provide enough food, and breakfast club, which is free to all, is packed to the rafters every day. There’s a well-used food bank and a uniform cupboard.

The head of sixth form has crates of snacks in her office for “snack and study” sessions with her students. Parents whose children are not eligible for free school meals are building up large deficits because they cannot afford school lunch, which are often just written off.

Because of the high levels of need within the community, the school benefits from a school-based community hub with family support workers, youth and mental health support. It offers the kind of wrap-around care that helps keep children who might otherwise be excluded in school and parents on board, but the school finances are such that Thompson fears she will not be able to afford it next year. “My energy bill went up £200,000 last year. I’ve cut to the bone.”


Although the housing crisis is affecting all areas of London and the UK, the problem is particularly acute in Ponders End because of a vast regeneration scheme. A series of 1960s high-rises, part of the Alma Estate, have all been demolished bar one to make way for low-rise, modern brick-built blocks, the style of which can be seen replicated across most London boroughs today.

The regeneration process has involved decanting everyone from the towers. Affordable housing is in desperately short supply in the area. As a result a number of families have ended up in the local Travelodge, while others have been dispersed to hotels elsewhere: parents and children sharing a single room, without access to a microwave, cooker, fridge or washing machine. “You can’t wash your clothes or cook a meal,” says Thompson. “It’s awful.”

Often families are moved out of the area, so it can take up to two hours to get to school. One tearful mother calls the school on an almost daily basis desperate for help. She has been temporarily housed in a Travelodge, and has just been moved to a room in a shared house but it is in Newham, where there are rat droppings on the fridge and she cannot get her child to school. “We’ve always had housing issues, but not as bad as now,” says Thompson. The school manages to secure transport via the local authority, but only for a few weeks.

Behaviour, gangs and mobile phones

While the government moved recently to ban mobile phones in schools in England as a way of improving behaviour, OAH’s policy is to allow phones, but not in class. If seen during lessons they are confiscated. The school tried an outright ban, but it caused more problems than it solved. Thompson, however, says she cannot wait for the ban on disposable vapes.

The school has the highest number of perpetrators and victims in the borough, and gangs and gang affiliation are an ever-present danger. “We are in the middle of gang central here,” says the safeguarding manager, Naomi Hall. “With children who are gang-affliated, we’re looking at who they’re talking to, monitoring who their friends are, and making sure we are in there before anything escalates.”

Thompson says you can spot when a child has been groomed because they suddenly become more compliant in school to avoid attention. There have been cases where children have been sexually exploited. The school would like a dedicated police officer but the Met does not have the resources. “Because things have got much worse really quickly, everyone is scrapping around for the same resources,” says Thompson.


Recruitment is a nightmare, getting enough staff to put a teacher in front of every class is a daily struggle. OAH has students enrolled on physics A-level but there’s no physics teacher. A WhatsApp group of headteachers post desperate pleas for help to fill gaps in staffing. “Can anyone spare a maths/computing/French teacher for a day? Half a day?”

“People don’t want to go into teaching any more,” says Thompson, who spends £40,000 a year on recruitment advertising. Despite the bonuses she offers there are few applicants and staff are leaving. “This year I’ve got three off to Dubai.”

She doesn’t blame them. “It’s right we are held responsible for children’s outcomes and wellbeing, but to do it with less resources, less money, less teachers and less central support, and with more challenges around families – it’s hard. I understand why my colleagues are leaving and retiring. It’s something I hear every day.”