One of the strongest arguments for retaining local authorities is the need for some ultimate body to ensure that no child is neglected or abused by those who are supposed to provide for their social, physical and educational development. Yet nothing has undermined that argument so much as councils' own repeated failures to protect the neediest or most vulnerable.
The chief inspector of schools protests this week at the inability of local councils even to keep track of an estimated 10,000 pupils who have simply disappeared from the system. Meanwhile, as he says, the poor support provided to the 9,000 children a year officially excluded from schools reinforces the disadvantage many of them already suffer.
There is nothing new in this multiple, compound and growing failure by local authorities. Many of the expelled are in their direct care. The number of excluded pupils with statements of special needs is rising.
Little progress has been made since the Labour Government recognised this scandal. More than two years ago authorities were told to provide 24 hours of education per week to excluded children. Yet a survey of 60 authorities this year by the National Foundation for Educational Research found only a quarter claimed to meet that standard. Many did not even recognise that they should. Both the NFER and the Office for Standards in Education found authorities that do not systematically record the existence of such pupils.
There are honourable exceptions. Last week we wrote about a promising scheme in Surrey to reintegrate excluded pupils based upon collaboration between schools brokered by the authority. But the wider picture is a disgraceful and demeaning disaster.
Neglecting such children not only makes a bad situation worse for them and their families. We all have to live with the consequences of their disrupted education and disaffected lifestyles.
Local government is busily erecting arguments for greater bureaucratic power to achieve the goals of the Every Child Matters Green Paper. But action - or failure to act - speaks far louder than any words.