Councils lose track of thousands of school-age children

By Derren Hayes

| 12 June 2014

Local authorities are unaware of the whereabouts of thousands of children who are not attending school, an investigation by the National Children's Bureau (NCB) has discovered.

Children that miss education are at greater risk of failing academically, NCB warns. Image: Phil Adams

Information gathered by NCB from 45 English local authorities showed that on a given day 1,022 children’s whereabouts were unknown by the council, making up almost a third of the total number of children missing education.

The finding means that if applied across all 152 local authorities, the whereabouts of more than 3,000 children across the country are unknown by local authorities.

The Not Present, What Future? report says the finding is of “particular concern” as “if the local authority does not know these children’s whereabouts, there is a risk they will be “off the radar” for a range of services, including children’s social care, health and family support”.

The findings from the 45 local authorities – chosen from the 79 that provided snapshot data because they had comparable recording systems – also showed that of the 3,396 children missing education on a given day, 43 per cent (1,474) were awaiting a place in school or alternative provision, 6.9 per cent (234) had left the authority and 5.4 per cent (184) had moved overseas.

The report also highlights that of the 139 local authorities to respond to NCB’s Freedom of Information request, 51 (42 per cent) failed to provide a breakdown of the reasons why children were missing education. It said this highlights the lack of consistency of data collection at local level, with some authorities gathering data annually, monthly or for a given day.

It recommends the Department for Education works with local authorities, schools and Ofsted to conduct a national review into children missing education, which incorporates assessing existing systems for local data collection and monitoring and puts in a consistent approach nationwide.

Across the 79 authorities that provided snapshot data, 7,701 children were reported as missing education for a variety of reasons on a given day. NCB estimates that this means 14,800 children are missing education at any one time across England.

Hilary Emery, chief executive of NCB, said: “Children who miss out on education are at significant risk of failing academically, and may end up as not in education, employment or training in later life because their school life has been disrupted. There is also the real possibility that some of these children will suffer physical and emotional harm, particularly if they are taken off the school roll and their whereabouts become unknown.

“Reliable data on the numbers of children affected is extremely hard to come by, each local authority seems to record something different and DfE does not report on the national picture. Our data shows the problem is widespread but more research is required.”

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