Thousands of Scottish pupils are said to be “missing” from school as fears grow that the Covid pandemic has left many too anxious to return.

Scottish Labour’s Michael Marra said analysis suggested around 6,900 children and young people were not attending premises following national lockdowns. He also told Holyrood’s Education, Children and Young People Committee that increasing concern south of the Border had led Dame Rachel de Souza, Children’s Commissioner for England, to launch an inquiry.

The remarks come amid worries over the impact of the fast-spreading Omicron variant. Douglas Hutchison, Glasgow Council’s new executive director of education, said returning to classrooms had been a challenge for some.

“What I’m hearing is that there are young people who have a heightened anxiety about coming back to school due to Covid,” he told MSPs on Wednesday. “So, young people who have been predisposed to a degree of anxiety anyway, it has been exacerbated.”

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Mr Hutchison, who is also president of the Association of Directors of Education, stressed that specialist support was being offered. He said: “I do get a sense that there is a group of children and young people with increased anxiety about returning to school and it is a case of working with them in the same way that we would with young people pre-Covid in order to build up their confidence, address their fears and anxieties, and enable them to return part-time initially, and then full-time eventually.”

Dame Rachel’s announcement of an inquiry came after statistics for England indicated that between 80,000 and 100,000 children were not on any school rolls at all.

She told the BBC that some absences were due to illness and Covid, but said other individuals had simply failed to return following classroom closures during the pandemic. “I am going to use the police, or the local safeguarding boards,” she added. “We are going to find the children because I want to talk to them to ask them what’s going on and get them in.”

HeraldScotland: Douglas Hutchison is Glasgow Council's new executive director of education.Douglas Hutchison is Glasgow Council's new executive director of education.

Mr Hutchison warned that the issue was affecting a range of age groups in Scotland. “Anecdotally, I’m aware that there is a group of young people for whom return to school has been problematic - not just at secondary, at primary as well,” he told MSPs. “And schools and local authority staff, educational psychologists, are working with them to try and address those issues.”

His remarks echo those of Bruce Adamson, Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, who said in November that he was aware of worries over persistent, unexplained pupil absence. “That’s a consistent pattern across Europe,” he told MSPs previously. “It’s a consistent pattern across the UK as well.

“Anecdotally, there’s still high levels of anxiety around school. There’s significant numbers off at the moment [for] Covid-related [reasons] so that’s all kind of mixed in as well, and there’s still confusion around whether you’re supposed to be isolating and whether you’re not.”

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Parent representatives suggested the pandemic had led to interest in the possibility of teaching children at home. Stressing that unexplained absence was more of an issue after the first Covid lockdown, Margaret Wilson, chair at the National Parent Forum of Scotland, told MSPs: “There [were] quite a few queries that came into us about withdrawing from school and doing home schooling, and things like that.

"There is support out there for pupils with heightened anxiety, and supporting them to get back to school, but it hasn’t been something that we've heard for a while."