FOI figures show about 33,000 school-aged children were recorded as missing from education in 2015. Photograph: Design Pics Inc/Rex
The government is being urged to identify and support thousands of “hidden” children and young people who drop out of school and disappear off the radar, leaving them at increased risk of abuse and exploitation.
The National Children’s Bureau (NCB), a leading children’s charity, says problems such as bullying, special educational needs, neglect and domestic violence at home, can cause a child to disappear from school for months, even years.
They miss out on their education, which compromises their future prospects, and become more vulnerable as they are beyond the protective reach of school and support services.
Anna Feuchtwang, the NCB chief executive, said: “These children are often living on the margins, disengaged with school and invisible to other services. They are often very vulnerable.
“Away from the safety and security of school, they’re more at risk of abuse and exploitation, taking part in criminal activity and missing out on support for special educational needs and mental health problems.
“Education is the key to a child’s future. National government must lead the way so that all children get the right support to learn.”
The NCB is calling for more resources for schools and local authorities to help identify children at risk of dropping out and to help them to return. It wants better data collection locally and nationally and closer cooperation between agencies to make sure children are getting the support they need.
A new NCB report, published on Tuesday and based on in-depth interviews with children, young people and their families, explores the reasons why children miss out on education. These include:
- they refuse to go to school after conflict with other pupils or teachers;
- their parents have moved to England from abroad and do not understand England’s school admissions process;
- they are living in temporary accommodation and have to move repeatedly;
- they feel their school has not given them the right support in cases involving bullying, mental health issues and special educational needs.
The NCB said it was a scandal that no national data was collected on these children. Freedom of information requests by the NCB and BBC have indicated that tens of thousands of children are missing out on their education each year.
Despite the duty on local authorities to provide an education to every child, significant numbers drop off the school roll and do not receive an education at home either. Many others may be enrolled in a school, but are still not accessing a full-time curriculum.
Responses to a 2014 FOI request by the NCB to local authorities estimated that more than 14,800 children were missing education across England at any one time – and the whereabouts of about 3,000 of these children were unknown. More recently, a BBC FOI request found that just under 33,000 school-aged children were recorded as missing from education in the academic year ending July 2015.
Richard Watts, who chairs the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said new government guidance published in September had strengthened the duties on schools to inform councils when children went missing or moved school.
“Councils have long-held concerns that children missing school may not be receiving a suitable education and Ofsted has also identified that some children missing school are at greater risk of being the victim of child sexual exploitation, female genital mutilation and falling prey to radicalisation.
“Requiring all schools to inform councils when children are removed from an admission register, and to share details of the destination school and home address, will help councils fulfil their statutory responsibility to safeguard all children in a more timely and effective manner.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Every child should have access to the best possible education, regardless of background or circumstance. We have strengthened the law around what information schools must share with their local authority when a pupil is taken off the roll. This will make it easier for local authorities to act swiftly and ensure children are safe from harm and receiving a suitable education.
“The duty lies with local authorities to make arrangements to establish the identities of children of compulsory school age in their area who are not registered pupils at a school and are not receiving suitable education otherwise.”
‘We get into a school and before you know it we’re gone’
- Sue has six children aged between nine and two. She left her partner because of domestic abuse. The family have moved several times and now live in temporary accommodation and, as a result, Sue’s older children have missed out on substantial periods of their schooling.
“We get into a school and before you know it – five months, a year – we’re gone,” she says. “We never get through a whole year. There’s been times when they’ve gone eight weeks or more without school.
“It’s impacted a lot on their learning and it’s stressful. Taking them to the library is not enough. My nine-year-old is having behaviour problems. He’s not concentrating. He refuses to make friends – he says, ‘What’s the point?’”
- Amelia, 15, started to miss school after experiencing mental health problems following her parents’ divorce. Out of education, she began mixing with older adults, which put her at risk of sexual exploitation.
- Another teenage girl, July, 14, started missing lessons when she was in year 7, and stopped going altogether in year 9. She was self-harming and had depression. After being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder was sent to a special school.
That did not help and she ran away repeatedly, which resulted in her being excluded. When NCB researchers interviewed her family, she was spending all her time alone, without receiving any education.
All names have been changed[“Source-theguardian”]