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