Why we must find the ‘missing’ children with SEND

A recent report into the number of children missing from education should make us reassess how we keep track of those with special educational needs, says Rob Webster
10th March 2022, 1:05pm


Why we must find the ‘missing’ children with SEND

Why we must find the 'missing' children with SEND

Educationalists love an acronym. Just before the first Covid lockdown, I was talking with an EP (educational psychologist) about the data his LA (local authority) collect on CYP (children and young people) with SEND (special educational needs and/or disabilities).

Amid the familiar abbreviations on his spreadsheet - EHCP (education, health and care plan), ASC (Autism Spectrum Condition), CIN (Child in Need), etc - there was a piece of shorthand I didn’t recognise. 

“What does L.O.S.T stand for?” I asked. 

“Oh”, he said, “that’s not an acronym. That means we don’t know where those pupils are”.

Though I was surprised, it wasn’t the first time I’d come across this sort of thing. Seven years ago, in 2015, I was re-recruiting pupils with a Statement (the precursor to EHCPs) for the second phase of a research project. 

Working with eight LAs, we identified the schools attended by 43 of the 48 pupils from the first phase, conducted three years earlier, when they were in Year 5. 

The other five pupils, it turned out, were L.O.S.T. 

Seemingly, nobody within half of these LAs knew where these children (now in Year 8) went to school or, for that matter, if they were even in school. 

The study was designed to describe the everyday classroom experiences of pupils with a Statement/EHCP. So, it was unexpected and troubling to discover that one in ten children from this otherwise randomly-selected cohort were effectively AWOL. 

Pupils with an EHCP tend to move schools, sometimes between LAs, more regularly than those who do not have SEND. When in school, they are at greater risk of exclusion. This higher mobility increases the likelihood of them slipping off the radar altogether. 

What’s more, there are other, often more vulnerable, children who never make it onto a school roll, who go missing from care, or who are trafficked into, and then even across, the country. 

LAs have a statutory duty to provide an education for vulnerable pupils, such as those with an EHCP, but achieving this is compounded by a persistent and elemental problem with recordkeeping. Without a coherent data collection architecture or a comprehensive data-sharing agreement covering schools, multi-academy trusts (MATs) and LAs, how can educational and safeguarding obligations be fulfilled? 

The Education Act 1996 requires LAs to identify children who are not registered at a school or who are not receiving a suitable education. Sensing that LAs were operating with one hand tied behind their back, our study recommended that policymakers set up a central database to log all pupil transfers and relocations, into, within and from LAs. 

Admittedly, it wasn’t an idea we either rigorously developed or foregrounded when we published our findings in 2017. But the essence of it, and why it remains so urgent, have resurfaced in a new report from the children’s commissioner for England

Dame Rachel de Souza’s solution for improving the accuracy of estimates of children missing from education is to have “timely, real-time data on the number of children in each LA, how many are enrolled in formal education and the number of EHE [elective home education] children”.

The way in which the report’s recommendations seem implicitly linked to the Department for Education’s new crackdown on school attendance is perhaps something to keep an eye on, but the Commissioner’s broader and more critical message to policymakers is that there is a clear need to review and improve how data on pupil whereabouts is collected and used at school, MAT and LA level, to “improve and standardise the protocols for sharing data”, and to be explicit about accountability, so there is clarity over who reports what to who. 

My view - based on my experience of conducting the Statement/EHCP study - aligns with, but goes no further than, de Souza’s headline assessment: “There should be no ‘unknown’ children to the system”. 

It’s an intuitive conclusion that should attract wide support. But as the report recognises, mapping their whereabouts is a complex and technical challenge. 

In addition, central registers are contentious. Homeschooling campaigners argue that they open a door to unwanted and unjustified state encroachment on matters relating to the quality and coverage of education. These are legitimate concerns that policymakers must navigate sensitively if they take the report’s recommendations forward. 

However, if we are going to ensure the safety, wellbeing and learning of each child, it is essential that we know where to find them. ASAP.

Rob Webster is a reader in education and director of the Education Research, Innovation and Consultancy Unit at the University of Portsmouth

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