The plight of children who become victims of abuse has received widespread publicity in recent months, with the case of teenagers exploited in Rochdale generating national headlines.
But teachers are failing to act immediately when they know that pupils have run away from home and become vulnerable to harm, according to research published today by The Children's Society.
These pupils are also going without support because of cuts to the number of education welfare officers in England and pressures on resources in schools, a report by the charity says.
"Our practitioners report that initial assessments of need or referrals to children's services are frequently not taking place when schools know a child has run away," it states. "Or they are taking place too late once the point of early intervention has been missed."
Particular concerns have been raised that academies, which operate outside local authority control, are not using these initial assessments, thereby creating greater potential risks.
An interim report by the Office of the Children's Commissioner into sexual exploitation in gangs and groups, published last month, found that children who were abused were "repeatedly going missing" and that 70 per cent of those interviewed for the report had gone missing from home.
Current statutory guidance says that teachers should have a meeting with social workers or other professionals when they have concerns about a young person who is not living at home.
But cuts to local authority spending on education welfare officers, whose role is to support absentees so that they attend school regularly, means that children absent from school have less support, according to The Children's Society.
Alan Cogswell, general secretary of the Association for Education Welfare Management professional body, said this had made a "significant difference" to the support offered to runaways. "There is firefighting of children's attendance without getting to grips with the more serious aspects of the job," he said.
"In the past, situations where children had run away from home were a focus for us. We were able to spot the symptoms early and know in about a week if they had left their home. Now we are not going to know for some time."
Guy Halley, a former president of the National Association of Social Workers in Education, told TES the reduction in the number of educational welfare officers was putting the safety of vulnerable children at risk. "It leaves them much more likely to be taken off school rolls, told they should be taught at home, and is leaving them without real support," he said.
Cuts also mean that schools are not held to account as "effectively", the report adds. Increasing numbers employ their own attendance officers, who do not have the same independence as those who work for local authorities and are less able to challenge teachers' absence data, policies and procedures. "Schools' overriding focus is on improving their attendance figures rather than exploring why a child is absent," the report says.
The research showed that young people who have run away are more likely to feel they are not doing well at school and have lower educational aspirations. Pupils who run away from home are three times more likely to be absent from school.
"Unhappiness at school is often displayed through challenging behaviour in school. It is therefore vital that school staff always explore why a child is demonstrating such behaviour, as this may be a sign that they are running away," the report says.
Recommendations from The Children's Society:
- School safeguarding policies should give due weight to school absence and running away.
- All staff should receive specialist training on how to deal with children who have run away from home.
- Data should be sent promptly to education welfare teams in local authorities when a child has missed 20 half-days of school.
- Schools should have an education and behaviour support team that works in a holistic way to monitor and address problems.
- Local authorities should have a team of education welfare officers.
- Ofsted should ensure that inspectors check registers for patterns of unauthorised absence in a bid to identify runaway pupils.