There’s an issue in our school system which we don’t know enough about: on any given day nearly 15,000 children are missing education. Many have legitimate reasons, such as health conditions or those who have been excluded and are awaiting placement elsewhere. But it is estimated, on any given day, that a staggering 3,000 children are not accounted for.
These figures came from Freedom of Information requests issued by the National Children’s Bureau to local authorities in January 2014. Of the 152 local authorities in England, 139 supplied data about the situation in their area. Unfortunately, the means they used to collect information and the data collected varied significantly making it hard to make comparisons. In addition, some authorities provided little or no information about the reasons for children missing education, and (worryingly) the Department for Education does not collect local data to present an overall picture.
However, by using what comparable data there was, we estimate that at any one time about 14,800 children are missing from school, of which 3,000 are those whose whereabouts are unknown. Equally worryingly, our estimates indicate that almost 5,000 are awaiting a place in school or alternative provision.
Previous reviews of children missing education paint a similar picture. In 2011, the TES found that just under 12,000 children had fallen out of education. In 2013, Ofsted judged that more than 10,000 children across England were not participating in full-time education (the different figures are mainly due to how absence is defined). What is concerning about our findings is the number of children whose whereabouts is unknown.
Every child under-16 should be receiving a “suitable education”, either through school, alternative provision or home education. Children are classed as missing education if they are not on a school roll or receiving education by other means.
The reasons for dropping out are diverse and often complex with more than one factor involved. Some pupils will have been permanently excluded, among girls small numbers will be pregnant or be young mothers. Some have complex needs, including behavioural difficulties, and no suitable school place has been found for them, and others have health needs.
We know that certain groups are particularly vulnerable to missing education, including children at risk of harm or neglect, children of gypsy, Roma and traveller families, families in the armed forces, runaways, and those in the youth justice system.
For the majority, there are legitimate reasons for missing education. However even when this is the case, it is likely to have a detrimental effect on their learning as well as increasing the risk of getting involved with drugs and crime – all of which is likely to lead to them becoming NEET.
However, around 30 per cent of the total number are absent and neither the school nor local authority know of their whereabouts. There is the real possibility that some of these children could be at risk of physical and emotional harm. Recent high-profile cases of child sexual exploitation have involved children missing from education. There is a correlation too between missing education and forced marriages.
More research is required to better understand what is happening. We are calling on government to conduct a national review of children missing education and to improve the way data is collected both locally and nationally. The review should consider how local authorities, schools, social services, health services and their partners can work with children and their families to ensure they can and do attend school. Without these improvements we risk even more children missing education, being poorly understood, poorly supported, and being at risk.
Dr Hilary Emery is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau. The report Not Present, What Future? is available from www.ncb.org.uk