Children missing education: It’s time to track the vulnerable

Written by: Suzanne O’Connell | Published:
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Schools are expected to follow up every absence, and yet there are thousands of children who have nobody checking up on them at all. The issue of children missing education is difficult to tackle, so what can be done to protect the vulnerable? Suzanne O’Connell reports

In a recent report by the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) – Children Missing Education – it is suggested that 49,187 children were reported as missing education at some point in 2016/17. This meant an average of 222 children in each local authority or more than seven classrooms of children. Perhaps most worryingly, this is an estimate only.

There is no national data collection of children missing education (CME). The only way of obtaining information about these children is through a Freedom of Information request to individual local authorities. However, the data returned varies and the best overall figure that can be drawn is only an approximate one.

During this last FoI request by the NCB there was huge variation between different local authorities ranging from the highest, which had 419 CME per 10,000 school-age children, and the lowest, which had two. With such varying figures something is very much at odds in the way in which local authorities are collecting and recording their data.
Not only are these children at risk of losing out on large chunks of their education but they are missing that first line of safeguarding that schools are considered to be vital in delivering.

Who are the CME?

Children missing education are children of compulsory school age who are not registered pupils at a school and are not receiving suitable education elsewhere. Part of the difficulty in dealing with the number of unregistered children is the fact that the routes by which they arrive at being classified as CME are vast and varied. The NCB has separated them into four categories:

  • The individual child’s feelings and preferences (e.g. mental ill-health, fear of school, past experience/trauma).
  • Problems in the family and home (e.g. domestic violence, family breakdown, caring responsibilities, parental illiteracy).
  • The school environment (e.g. SEND, social and emotional problems, unsuitable placements, unofficial exclusions, bullying).
  • Wider systems and society (e.g. moving to/from another local authority or abroad).

The NCB wanted to know not only about the number of CME children but also whether they could be classed as vulnerable or not. The NCB asked local authorities how many of their CME were receiving free school meals and how many were known to social services. If the overall figure was sketchy, these details were even more so. Of the 152 local authorities contacted, only 59 were able to identify how many received FSM and only 94 could say how many were known to social services.

Why should we be concerned?

From the FSM and social services data that was received, it was evident that the children who are missing are also more likely to be vulnerable. This perhaps comes as no surprise. However, it should be noted that:

  • Twenty-two per cent of the CME were in receipt of FSM when last on school roll (compared to 13 per cent of other children).
  • Fifteen per cent of the CME were also known to social services (in comparison to 5.5 per cent of other children).

Many of these children are likely to be those most at risk. This suggests that many of the children most in need of monitoring, support and safeguarding are the very ones having little to no contact with a school – the school being the most front-line service likely to recognise when problems are occurring.

Moving beyond the safeguarding concerns it perhaps comes as no surprise that CME children are also likely to underachieve. The NCB report indicates that those who are CME are at high risk of poor outcomes.

What should policy-makers do?

The NCB recommends that the Department for Education (DfE) should collect statistics on a national level on CME and that these should be published annually. This should include the length of time for which the child was missing and whether they qualify for FSM and/or are known to social services.

They are also recommending that there is a single identifier for each CME across all agencies. This might be a child’s National Health Service number, for example, which can then be used to keep track of where the child is.

Guidance for local authorities needs to be revised and the NCB recommends a review into the variation in the number of children missing across local authority areas. The NCB would like to see best practice shared and more support available for both local authorities and schools.

What should schools do?

The statutory guidance states that schools must:

  • Monitor pupils’ attendance through daily registers.
  • Notify the local authority when a pupil’s name is to be removed from the admission register and give the reason for the removal.
  • Regularly report the details of pupils who are consistently absent from school, or have missed 10 schools days or more without permission, to the local authority.

Where a pupil does not attend school for 20 consecutive days of unauthorised absence the guidance states that both the school and the local authority should make “reasonable enquiries” together to establish where the child is before their name is taken of roll. However, the difficulty with any phrase such as “reasonable enquiries” is – what exactly does it mean?

Birmingham City Council has included in their CME policy that schools should:

  • Call the CME team to conduct “background checks”.
  • Consider the likely reason for the absence.
  • Make a first day of absence call to the parents.
  • Check with members of staff who the child may have had contact with.
  • Check with the child’s friends, siblings and known relatives at the school or another school.
  • Make enquiries with any other professionals who have been involved with the child.
  • Make telephone calls to any numbers held.
  • Conduct a visit to the last known address within the first five days of the child’s absence.
  • If possible, enquire of neighbours about the location of the family.
  • Send a letter to the last known address.
  • Complete the “Missing Pupil” referral form (other authorities also recommend actions such as requesting copies of flight information),

Hopes for the future

The authors of Children Missing Education were optimistic about opportunities to reform the system, including inquiries into alternative provision. The authors note that many children who are missing education spend some time in such provision and that improved supervision and support could be, therefore, of benefit to this group of children.

Anna Feuchtwang, chief executive of the NCB, said: “We know from our research there are many thousands of children who are missing out on school every year, who do not receive a suitable education at home or elsewhere, or have their special needs met appropriately. Some of these children will be in settings which we simply don’t know enough about, laying some children open to the risk of poor treatment, shoddy outcomes, and sub-standard facilities. We need to get a better understanding of what out-of-school education settings are doing, and ensure the children and young people they look after are safe from harm.”

However, the DfE consultation report – Out-of-school Education Settings – falls short of supporting the original model that had been put forward. This model included a regulatory system for out-of-school settings that might consist of:

  • Registration and the provision of basic information about the setting.
  • A power for a body to inspect settings.
  • A power to impose sanctions where settings are failing to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.

The proposals were rejected in favour of collecting more evidence for a national approach “including future legislation where gaps in existing powers are identified”. The report then goes on to indicate some areas of work in the future including consulting on a voluntary code of practice and providing guidance for parents.

It is likely that the huge breadth and variety of the different settings that would need to be covered is one reason for the reluctance to wade in here. Finding an acceptable threshold above which settings should register and be inspected, was controversial.

The original guideline of six to eight hours were rejected by 73.1 per cent of the respondents to the DfE consultation.

The idea that the traditional Sunday School and Scout group could be affected by any legislation had brought indignation from some. It would be difficult to find criteria that would omit these family favourites but include other settings that the government had in mind when drafting the proposals.

Dealing with the varied reasons why children fall through the net was never going to be easy. However, the first step in addressing the issue must be having the data so we know what we are dealing with. 

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

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