Missing, presumed dead is a phrase associated more often with wars than schools. So when the body of Danielle Reid, 5, was recovered three months after she left her school, it came as a shock that no one in the education system had noticed her disappearance. Su Clark reports on the launch today of a service to stop children slipping through the net
When a child dies in abusive circumstances there is always a crusade to find someone to blame. Social workers usually bear the brunt of rallies in the media. But in the case of Danielle Reid, the five-year-old murdered by her mother's boyfriend and then dumped in a suitcase in the canal in Inverness, it was the education authorities and the school, which came in for much of the flak.
Danielle's mother, Tracy Reid, was allowed to withdraw her child from school without any consequence. She simply told the class teacher she was moving to Manchester: no checks were made, no alarms raised.
Danielle wasn't known to social services; her mother had no history of abuse or neglect towards her. When her mother said she was leaving Inverness, the school had no reason to disbelieve her.
The system in place at the time for children transferring schools could not have protected Danielle.
"The system was that the receiving school triggered a request for a pupil's records," says Bruce Robertson, Highland's director of education, culture and sport. "If a parent didn't register at a new school, the old school wouldn't know where the child had gone."
Danielle's death sparked much soul searching, both at local and national level, about the gaping hole in legislation that allowed children to simply disappear. Highland's reaction was swift: its child protection committee, chaired by the Northern Constabulary's chief constable, Ian Latimer, commissioned Jean Herbison, a consulting pediatrician at Glasgow's Yorkhill hospital, to carry out an independent review of the case.
The report was to be presented in September 2003; this date passed with nothing published. The next date - June 2005 - has also passed. The final draft is yet to be received by Highland.
Meanwhile, Dr Herbison has made a preparatory comment that exonerates the school and education authority. "There is little doubt that the violent death of this five-year-old girl was not preventable by any of the agencies concerned," she said in June.
Highland has gone further than just finding out what went wrong. Within months of the crime, and long before Dr Herbison's report was due, it overhauled its school transfer system. Under the new system, no parent can remove a child from school without consequences.
"Our system puts the onus squarely on the parents," says Mr Robertson.
"They are asked for information about the child's new school when they deregister. They are informed if the old school does not receive a request for records within 10 school days and an investigation is triggered into the child's whereabouts."
If the child is considered vulnerable, the timescale is even shorter. If the parent withdraws the child without deregistering, an investigation is launched immediately.
Since bedding in the system two years ago, 20 children have seemingly gone missing from school. In every case, the school alerted the authority, triggering a search that has ended successfully.
"Even when they have gone off to other authorities or to England, we have been able to trace them," says Mr Robertson, obviously relieved the system is working.
The Scottish Executive points to Highland as a good example: it would like to see every authority have a similar system in place. But as well as promoting good practice at local authority level, the Executive has initiated a national body to ensure no child goes missing the way Danielle did.
Today, Children Missing Education (Scotland) is officially launched. In charge is Judi Pollock, who has been seconded from Midlothian Council, where she was head of service for children with social, emotional, behavioural and health needs.
Since January, CME has been focusing on how to make school-to-school transfers and systems for tracking children missing education more robust.
Part of that has been to create a database of people at local authority level with whom CME can liaise. It has also been working with the Department for Education and Skills to establish similar links with all the English and Welsh authorities.
Peter Peacock believes Scotland is now leading the way with school transfers. "If a local authority is informed by one of its headteachers that a pupil has left school and no confirmation that the child has registered at another school has been received, and its own local checks have proved fruitless, then it can approach CME to institute a nationwide search," says the Minister for Education and Young People, "We have links with England and Wales and are developing further links with southern and Northern Ireland."
The typical timescale will be around four weeks - longer than Highland's cut-off period - but if the child is flagged as vulnerable, the delay will be much shorter.
"The CME will always prioritise any children considered vulnerable," Mr Peacock says.
The scheme will link in with other computerised child referral processes being developed by the Executive. The Unique Pupil Referral number will aid the development of centralised files on each child, with references to any risk. Local authorities can then be aware of these.
The School2School scheme, which is due to come online in 2006, will be a virtual holding centre to which a departing child's record will be transferred. The receiving school can then request the records from the centre rather than the old school.
If no school requests the records within four weeks, alarm bells will ring.
If a school has flagged the child as vulnerable, or it is on the child protection register, the alarm will go off much sooner.
Glasgow set up a similar system two years ago. The authority has its own virtual holding centre, to which schools can forward records of children who appear to have vanished.
"It used to be that schools would hold on to records until a request was made from another school and if the request didn't happen they could simply close the records," says John Curley, Glasgow's head of information technology, administration and buildings. "For obvious reasons, headteachers were reluctant to do this and I was always getting concerned calls from them.
"Now they pass on the records to our Pupil Miscellaneous database; we then track down the missing children."
The computer system used by the authority was developed when Glasgow was still part of the old Strathclyde regional council and is also used by other neighbouring authorities, which means they can easily share information.
"Other schools and agencies, such as social services, can access limited information, such as school attendance," says Mr Curley. "It makes it easier for all agencies to monitor children they may have concerns about."
Another characteristic of the Glasgow system, which is to be part of the CME's remit, is the ability to make the records anonymous. Families fleeing problems or violence can pass on information about previous schools via CME without worry about being traced, allowing the receiving schools to obtain valuable information about its new pupils.
Since it was launched, Glasgow's Pupil Miscellaneous database has received the records of 120 children who have disappeared from the authority's roll.
Most have been tracked successfully.
The CME has no clear idea, at the moment, how many children go missing each year in Scotland.
"It is important to have a national body that can liaise between local authorities, in Scotland and abroad, rather than just rely on local searches. After all, teachers and education officers are busy people; they have jobs to do," says a CME spokeswoman.
"We don't want a situation like London. When police found the torso of a little boy in the Thames they asked the London authorities how many black boys aged 4 to 7 had gone missing off school rolls. Between July and September 2001, 300 had vanished. With our system we would know immediately what the picture was."
However, local authorities have warned that the weak link could be the schools. The CME and the School2School system will be relying on schools to keep their records up to date and pass on information.
"We are all busy people," says Mr Robertson. "Making a request for a pupil's records is not a top priority when someone is enrolled at school, but we have to ensure that schools recognise the need and take action quickly."
The report due on the Danielle Reid case will re-ignite debate about child protection, but now the Scottish Executive will be able to show that schools have the facilities to ensure fewer children slip through any gaps and disappear.
AIMS OF THE CME
The Children Missing Education (Scotland) service, launched today, will:
* promote the use of systematic procedures in schools and education authorities and enhance practice in transfer of records;
* develop good practice when responding to a child or young person going missing from an education service;
* promote consistent practice in local areas to locate and engage children; and
* enable effective inter-authority and cross-border location and transfer of information.
It will assist in:
* the transfer of information;
* tracing and locating families; and
* tracking information when children arrive in a new location with limited or false information, to assist authorities to provide support effectively.