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The mystery of England's 12,000 vanishing pupils

News | Published in TES Newspaper on 11 February, 2011 | By: Kerra Maddern

Analysis: Without a national system local authorities are failing to keep track of children who drop out of education, sparking fears that they may be at risk of abuse. Kerra Maddern reports

Almost 12,000 children are officially "missing" from education, a TES investigation has revealed, with many at "serious risk" of physical, sexual and mental harm.

Leading children's charities and Ofsted say they are deeply concerned by the findings, which show that 11,911 children have fallen out of the education system and that schools and local authorities do not know the location of significant numbers of these young people. The last official estimate from the Government - made five years ago - put the total number of children missing from education at 10,000, suggesting that the problem has since deteriorated.

The TES statistics, obtained from every English local authority through the Freedom of Information Act, reveal the challenges of trying to keep track of thousands of transient families who move between regions. Children classed as missing from education have not been taught in school for at least a month. Some are victims of over-crowding in schools, with local authorities struggling to find them places. Some are being taught at home, while others are school "refusers". But local authorities say more than 1,500 others are "untraceable". This has prompted concerns for their safety.

Large urban areas have the highest numbers of children missing from education. Experts from Barnardo's and the Children's Society say that not enough is being done to ensure that vulnerable pupils remain in school.

While each local authority has to keep a census of how many children are "missing" in their area, there is no national system for tracing children or transferring information between councils when they move. A legal duty to identify children missing from education was imposed on local authorities four years ago, but there is no requirement for parents to tell councils when they change address.

Leicester has the highest single number of children officially missing from education - a total of 2,611. Of these, 313 are waiting for a school place, but council officers are investigating why 2,298 are not attending lessons. Many attended state-run nurseries but have not moved into primary schools.

The city council says its high numbers are the result of a "ruthless" process to trace the whereabouts of all children. "If we don't know where they are, we do everything we can to find out where they have gone," says head of behaviour and attendance John Broadhead. "Other local authorities do not do as much, but we treat this very seriously."

The council employs one member of staff just to track down missing children, assisted by 20 education welfare officers. Headteachers can alert the local authority to pupils who cannot be tracked down via a live database, introduced five years ago.

The TES investigation shows that a total of 67 local authorities claim they have no missing children and 29 have fewer than 20. But Kent County Council is unable to trace 618 children, Leeds reports 558 and Camden more than 100 (see tables, right). Because there is no national system, different authorities record children missing from education in different ways, making it difficult to understand the reasons so many have fallen out of the system.

Former Barnardo's chief executive Martin Narey says the situation is "deeply troubling". "School is somewhere that every child needs to be every day," he says. "For many of our most vulnerable young people it is the only stability they know, the only time when a little chaos is taken out of their lives, the only time when they are required to behave reasonably.

"It is the one place where poor life expectations can be reversed. So for thousands of children - inevitably those most in need of education - to be missing from school is deeply troubling. We need to keep children in school or, when removal is necessary, as it sometimes is, ensure alternative provision is always made available in a timely manner."

Children's Society policy director Enver Solomon says: "It is vital children don't disappear from the school roll. There's a danger this could happen to vulnerable pupils if schools just focus on attainment and their welfare is overlooked.

"The most marginalised children have the most complex needs: they must be given additional help to remain in education."

Ofsted has also been critical of local authorities for failing to work together in identifying and helping children who drop out of school (see box, opposite). Patrick Leeson, the inspectorate's director of education and care, says: "Children and young people who are not receiving education are at serious risk of under-achieving and falling behind. When their whereabouts are unknown they may be particularly at risk of physical, emotional and psychological harm.

"Ofsted inspectors have found that local authorities, schools and partner agencies need to share information more effectively and systematically to identify children and young people who are missing from education, particularly when their whereabouts are unknown, and to take concerted action to remedy the situation."

New arrivals to the country account for a substantial group of those missing from education, according to councils. In Sheffield, for example, 460 children without places are from Slovakia, and are receiving council help in applying for school places.

Other children are not in school because their parents refuse to send them. In Peterborough, 248 pupils are missing from rolls having turned down offers of places, mostly because the schools were too far away from their homes.

Children from the traveller community are at particular risk of vanishing from the education system. Linda Lewins, vice-president of the National Association of Teachers of Travellers, says it is "vital" that traveller education services are maintained by local authorities. "Children from the gypsy and traveller community are much more likely to miss school," she says. "Many families notify teachers they are leaving, but the local authority often finds it difficult to discover where they have gone."

A Department for Education spokeswoman said it expects local authorities to identify children missing from school and to allocate places as quickly as possible.

But with no plans to put in place a robust national system to track and identify missing children, a rapid decline in their numbers appears unlikely.

SAFEGUARDING - Families are strangers to councils

Ofsted inspectors found in a report published last year that many councils were failing to fulfil their safeguarding duties because they did not know enough about children in their areas.

Local authority officers were "challenged" by high numbers of transient families moving in and out, inspectors found. Teachers were adding to the problem by not following the correct procedures when excluding children.

Communication between local authorities was also highlighted as a problem. None of the 15 authorities surveyed felt confident that they knew about all the children in their areas.

Inspectors also found that schools did not always follow the law and keep traveller pupils on their rolls if they left. Parents were unlikely to seek a place for their child elsewhere if the school became full while they were away.

Inspectors said that councils tried to work with other services such as health, but their success in doing so varied. Ofsted called for information to be shared more effectively.


The ten local authorities with the highest numbers of children missing from school

Leicester: 2,611

Birmingham: 762

Kent: 618

Bradford: 593

Leeds: 558

Brent: 526

Sheffield: 460

Southampton: 449

Doncaster: 439

Westminster: 364


The local authorities which admit to being unable to trace missing children

Kent: 618

Leeds: 558

Camden: 103

Hillingdon: 84

Greenwich: 60

Southwark: 54

Buckinghamshire: 52.

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Comment (6)

  • Should the headline read "Are removed from school"? A lot of children are removed from schools because it is not the right place for them to receive their education. This is often because they are being bullied by other children and/or adults (who should know better).

    A highly biased article using emotive language - not what I expect from the TES! The analysis implies that 12,000 pupils have dropped out of education and are now at risk of abuse. In fact the opposite is the case where parents are removing their children from potentially damaging environments (school).

    Those children at risk of abuse should be already known to Social Services. Martin Narey needs to get out and visit the many Home Education groups around the country to understand that school is NOT somewhere that EVERY child needs to be every day.

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    Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
    11 February, 2011


  • @2weekenders

    You might have some great reasons for supporting home-education, and know of some great examples of children receiving a good education outside of school.

    Unfortunately many children who are not at school are not home-educated either. I have worked with children who do not have stable, loving family lives, and who loved school because it provided a supportive environment that they did not have at home. It is often children from these non-supportive homes who disappear from the school system.

    If a child stops attending school and the local authority loses track of them, nobody from outside the child's family is there to look out for the welfare of the child - and if the family is responsible for abuse or neglect, that is a big problem. That is why non-attendance at school is a safeguarding concern.

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    Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    11 February, 2011


  • @Chirimolla

    You say "many", but how many?

    How many children in school commit suicide because of bullying and other pressures? How many children in Home Education commit suicide?

    This piece of journalism is sloppy and contains many damaging half-truths. The headline below states, "Missing: The lost 12,000 who should be in school..." In law, education is compulsory, school is NOT.

    If LAs and Governments provided the same funding to HE families as they to schools per child (£3000+) as an incentive then maybe more, if not all, HE families would register. There is currently little, or no advantages to registering.

    I have three children, two are home educated and one has chosen to attend school, so I am not biased either way. Abuse and neglect of anyone is the responsibility of all of us and, if suspected, should be reported. And yes, all the families I know who are home educating (a lot) are providing a loving, caring environment where the children can grow and blossom \(which some of them were not doing in school).

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
    12 February, 2011


  • The figures are highly suspect because I assume it only includes the children that local authorities have known in the past and may include multiple records attached to a single child in an authority or even the same child recorded by multiple authorities. On the other side of the coin are the children who have never been part of state education and are not recorded anywhere because their parents decided to home educate them before subjecting them to the school system.

    So I'd say that value of 12,000 is totally meaningless.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    12 February, 2011


  • If only 1,500 are "untraceable" then of the scary headline figure of 12,000 LAs actually KNOW the status of 10,500, right? And the untraceable? That figure includes children whose families have, shock horror, moved from one county to another or maybe even out of the country and didn't feel that they had to notify the council where they were going.

    It seems that the usual suspects are trying to stir up some moral panic so they can justify demanding ContactPoint Mark 2. I'm disappointed, although not greatly surprised that the TES has decided to be a party to it.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
    20 February, 2011


  • School is not the only option.
    Education, like feeding a child, is a parental responsibility. And to be able to take responsibility for this parents must be able to remove children from school - or never send them if that is in the best interests of the child or because they wish to follow a different educational model.
    Schools offer such narrow educational and social options that many parents choose not to use schools. It doesn't mean children are missing an education and just because a child is attending a school it doesn't meant that they are getting a suitable education.
    In a free country it is essential that people have freedom to move around and to make choices about education, without intimidation by Local Authorities, who are after all the providers of the education model these families have rejected.
    Also obviously the untraceable children can't be known to be missing an education since they obviously haven't been asked.
    If these children are really missing an education why aren't the LA's issuing SAO. Presumably because they don't have any evidence that will stand up in court that these children are actually missing an education suitable to their age, aptitude and ability that will enable them to live within their community.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
    21 February, 2011


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