Children missing in education

Written by: Dr Rebekah Ryder | Published:

More must be done to find and support the tens of thousands of children routinely missing in education, says Dr Rebekah Ryder

Education is a fundamental right for all children and yet there are tens of thousands of young people in England who are missing out. Children missing education are some of the most vulnerable in our society. Not only does it threaten their future grades and job prospects, it may mean they are at risk of harm – including abuse, neglect and falling into crime.

The National Children’s Bureau (NCB) recently published research looking into why children miss education and what needs to be done. We carried out in-depth interviews with 17 families who have experiences of missing education, alongside interviews and focus groups with professionals from three local authorities (Children Missing Education, NCB, 2017).

Our research found that the reasons for children being out of education were complex and often interconnected. It was clear though that the legal definition of “missing education” is too narrow, which means local authorities don’t have a record of every child who isn’t learning.

Under Section 436A of the Education Act 1996 the current legal definition is: “Children who are not on a school roll and are not receiving education elsewhere.”

Ofsted, however, uses a wider definition of pupils missing from education in their inspections which includes those on a school roll but not accessing a full-time education, such as those on unsuitable part-time timetables or unlawfully excluded.

Exact numbers of children missing from education are hard to find, as there is no national monitoring of data on children missing education and different local authorities record information in different ways.

A Freedom of Information request by the NCB in 2014 estimated that more than 14,800 children are missing education across England at any one time. However, the number of children not receiving an education in a real world sense may be much higher (Not Present, What Future? NCB, 2014).

The NCB is now calling on the government to extend the definition to include those children who are registered at a school, but who are not receiving a suitable education because of illegal exclusions, unsuitable part-time timetables and non-attendance. We are asking that schools are required to report to local authorities on such children and that greater resources are provided to local authorities to assist with monitoring and prevention.

We recognise that many schools are doing an excellent job supporting their students’ learning in a resource-constrained environment. In a minority of schools, however, local authorities reported that carers may feel coerced into withdrawing their children from school. This could be to avoid legal sanctions for non-attendance or because the school threatened families with exclusion.

While local authorities taking part in our research reported that home education often works well, they were concerned that some carers found it difficult. One local authority stakeholder said that inadequate home education (where a child is officially “home educated” but in practice not learning) was “one of the biggest categories of children who are missing education”.

The first challenge for the government is to extend the definition of missing from education, and make an assessment of how many children are not accessing their right to learn. Carers, schools and local authorities all have responsibilities in preventing children from missing education. The next step is to put in place the right resource and accountability structures so we can keep children in education, and help them return to learning as soon as possible if they have fallen out.

  • Dr Rebekah Ryder is a senior research officer at the National Children’s Bureau. Visit

Further information

Children Missing Education, NCB, March 2017:


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