Schools must take a significant amount of blame for the thousands of children who vanish from the education system every year, according to a government-commissioned report.
The study by the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (Nacro) cites research by Blackpool council which suggests that as many as 100,000 children are missing from the system nationally.
Researchers for Nacro found that schools were partly responsible for the high numbers vanishing from education because they often failed to tackle bullying, appeared too eager to exclude and sometimes did not inform local authorities after excluding pupils.
Their report, Missing Out, says: "For the majority of children, disappearing from the education system was the end point of a process of general deterioration in attendance or behaviour exacerbated by a lack of - or an inappropriate - response from schools and LEAs."
Nacro reported that the "overwhelming belief" of staff on its children's projects was that schools were refusing to admit previously-expelled pupils because of fears they would damage their league-table standing.
It found that schools often retained funding for pupils by keeping them on their rolls long after they had been excluded from lessons - in some cases for three years. This made it difficult for other organisations to fund alternative education programmes.
A Connexions staff member in Sandwell estimated that 80 per cent of the 200 young people on an alternative education programme were still on their schools' rolls. He complained that schools were "wiping their hands" of children they believed were difficult.
Parental attitudes and negligence were also cited as a key reason why many children were abandoning education.
One project worker in central London said: "The young people have chaotic lifestyles - they are up until five in the morning because there are people around drinking and smoking. Even with the best will in the world if they wanted to go to bed they couldn't."
Nacro called for better funding for alternative education, a more flexible curriculum in schools and an end to the imprisonment of the truants' parents.
Ivan Lewis, junior education minister, rejected the proposals to end jail sentences for parents. But he said the Government hoped to tackle many of the other issues raised in the report through changes to children's services and the curriculum, and through behaviour initiatives.
"While estimates on the numbers should be treated with caution, I am concerned for any child who is missing education, whether through truancy, low attainment or simply missing from the school roll," he said.
Past estimates on the number of "lost" children have ranged from 10,000 to 50,000. A Department for Education and Skills spokesman said it would be impossible to know the real figure until the Government introduces a unique identification number for every child - a plan announced in this week's Queen's Speech.
THE FACTS IN FIGURES
100,000 school-age pupils are missing from the education system nationally, according to estimates produced by Blackpool education authority and the University of Central Lancashire based on statistics for a single local authority.
50,543 pupils are absent without permission from schools in England every day, on average, according to Department for Education and Skills' statistics for last year. DfES figures show 9,540 pupils were permanently excluded in the school year ending 2002.
181,000 young people aged from 16 to 18 - roughly one in 10 - are not in education, employment or training, according to figures released this month by the National Statistics Office.
60 per cent of young people referred to Youth Offending Teams have special needs.
70 per cent of excluded pupils involved in an alternative education programme in Blackburn had suffered the death of a parent or relative.