50,000 missing from education

Almost 50,000 children were reported as missing from education in 2016-17, a report by the National Children’s Bureau has found.

Results of a Freedom of Information request published by the National Children’s Bureau suggests that 49,187 children were missing education at some point in 2016-17, raising fresh concerns over the welfare of this group of children. Of the 49,187 children missing education in England, 15% were known to social services.

Anna Feuchtwang, Chief Executive of the National Children’s Bureau, said: “It is alarming that thousands of children are missing education every year, and vital that each one gets the right support to protect them from harm and support them back into learning. The Government has the opportunity now to update the statutory guidance and take action to understand and protect this vulnerable group.”

Children missing education (CME) are defined as children of compulsory school age who are not registered pupils at a school and are not receiving suitable education elsewhere. The government acknowledges that children missing education are at significant risk of underachieving, being victims of harm, exploitation or radicalisation, and becoming NEET (not in education, employment or training) later in life.

Local authorities were asked to provide data on how many of the children missing education in their area were in receipt of free school meals or known to social services.

The proportion of CME who were eligible for free school meals when they were last in school – often linked to a low family income or being dependent on benefits - is 22 per cent - 9 percentage points higher than the average of 13%. NCB suggests this highlights the link between deprivation and poor education outcomes.

The research also showed that 15% of CME were ‘known’ to social services (only 5.5% of all children are referred to social services).  These children who are on the radar of social workers and are also missing education, may be at significant risk of abuse, harm or falling into crime.

The report also reveals a massive variation in the numbers of children recorded as CME across the country, with 419 CME per 10,000 children in the local authority with the highest numbers, to just 2 children for every 10,000 in the lowest. There is no clear reason for this variation, though it is likely that local authorities are still reporting and recording data differently.

Of the 137 councils who provided data, more than half (86) said they were unable to provide figures for the number of CME in receipt of free schools meals and 51 were unable to provide this information for the number of CME known to children’s services. There is no national level data on CME.

The National Children’s Bureau is calling on the Department for Education to take urgent action to update statutory guidance to address the wild variation and gaps in local authority data and collect data at the national level so there is a clearer picture of progress in tracing and meeting the needs of these vulnerable children.

Debbie Barnes, Chair of the ADCS Educational Achievement Policy Committee, said: “Missing out on a good education is bad for a child’s development and ultimately for their life chances yet this report highlights that tens of thousands of children were reported as missing from education last year.

“Children go missing from education for many reasons, and there is no way of really knowing if the experiences they are receiving elsewhere are suitable and preparing them for adulthood. For a small but worrying minority this can be the first sign of vulnerability to all forms of abuse and neglect, including sexual exploitation or radicalisation. In the absence of national level data showing the number of children missing from education across the country many children are effectively hidden from education and, in some cases, local authority children’s services, in that we do not have a true picture of this cohort, their needs or the opportunity to offer the timely and appropriate support they need to thrive.

“We must be clear about identifying and preventing those who are falling through the gaps in education and championing their needs. Current legislation does not support local authorities to effectively safeguard vulnerable learners and ensure they are receiving a suitable education either in their home or in unregistered settings, also known as illegal schools. For example, there is no requirement on some schools, or on parents of children being electively home educated to provide information or evidence of the quality of their pupils’ education or their health and wellbeing.

“This is seriously concerning for directors of children’s services as it reduces our ability to ensure children are safe, well supported and receiving a good standard of education, and should be for government too. Without urgent action from government to bridge the gaps in legislation that currently exist vulnerable children and young people will continue to be caught in the middle.”

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