A NATIONAL register of pupils who disappear from school rolls is to being drawn up by the Government. Ministers are already urging local authorities to gather the names of children and young people who "fall out" of the system when they move schools and pass the data to the Department for Education and Skills.
They have become increasingly concerned by the way long-term truants, children involved with crime and drugs and those in care can simply vanish.
The Office for Standards in Education estimates that some 10,000 pupils are missing from school rolls. Better arrangements for excluded children, the introduction of unique pupil numbers and the computerisation of records have improved "tracking".
Now the Government's children and young people's unit is funding councils to identify missing pupils and explore ways of preventing them from dropping off the radar screen.
Croydon has appointed Tim Barnes, an educational consultant, to study the issue. In 19978, an investigation by the London borough suggested that about 200 16-year-olds were "missing". Recent truancy sweeps have discovered one in 10 "children don't have a school and are not doing anything very much about finding one," said Alan Malarkey, the borough's group director of student services.
The interim report by Mr Barnes says schools are sometimes wrongly advising the parents of troublesome pupils to educate them at home. He identifies a major problem with older, long-term truants whom schools may simply allow to "drop off the end at 16".
Regulations state that schools should not delete pupils from their roll without informing the local authority. But anecdotal evidence across the country suggests they do.
"Schools gain a double advantage - as well as retaining funds, the young person does not count in the school's league table results," Mr Barnes said.
Croydon already has details of pupils whose destination is unknown when they transfer to schools out of the borough. This "virtual school" could be extended to track "missing" pupils, Mr Barnes suggests, using unique pupil numbers and new management systems that make it possible to update information monthly or even weekly.
Mr Barnes supports the creation of a central register of missing pupils, provided that data protection and human rights concerns can be met.
"There is always the spectre of Big Brother but the intention is to see that everyone gets their right to a good education," he says.
His findings will be presented at a seminar on missing pupils at the Department for Education and Skills in January.