Children’s commissioner warns 120,000 teenagers at risk of ‘falling off the radar’

Tens of thousands of England’s teenagers are at risk of “falling off the radar” of schools and local authority children’s services as the country eases out of lockdown, the children’s commissioner for England has warned.

Children's commissioner for England Anne Longfield warns of a 'lost generation'. Picture: Office of the children's commissioner for England
Children's commissioner for England Anne Longfield warns of a 'lost generation'. Picture: Office of the children's commissioner for England

New analysis published by commissioner Anne Longfield states that as many as one in 25 teenagers were at risk of dropping out of education or going missing from care and becoming “easy prey” for criminal gangs before the Covid-19 pandemic.

In 2017/18, 123,000 teenagers “fell through gaps” in local authority provision becoming invisible to services.

The report warns that spending six months out of school could leave even more children failing to return to full-time training or education without urgent support over the summer break.

“A whole generation of vulnerable teens could stay at risk of educational failure and unemployment, or crime or exploitation,” Longfield warns.

“We must not look back in five years at a generation of vulnerable teenagers who fell out of society and ended up drifting into crime and unemployment. They need extra help now as we emerge from lockdown.”

According to the report, teenagers in Liverpool, Medway and Blackpool were the most likely to fall through the gaps, while those in areas like Wokingham, Barnet and Rutland were the least.

Longfield highlights that most of these children face issues including exclusions from school, long and persistent periods of absence, dropping out of school in Year 11 and being placed in alternative education provision. Many had also gone missing from care, she said.

The report lays out a list of criteria for thousands more young people who do not meet the threshold for local authority support. It adds that in 2017/18, 81,000 teenagers met at least one of the criteria. 

The list includes:

  • Have special education needs and disabilities (SEND) and also multiple exclusions from school
  • Have a permanent exclusion but do not enter a pupil referral unit (PRU) during the year
  • Are in care and living in an unregulated placement
  • Are in care and have multiple placement changes during the year
  • Have a permanent exclusion
  • Have high levels of unauthorised absence
  • Drop out of the school system in Year 11
  • Miss at least an entire term of school in the previous two years
  • Are in care but go missing from their placement multiple times in a year

Longfield has called on local authorities to work with police forces to stop these vulnerable children getting involved with criminal gangs. 

More work must be done to ensure they re-enter education or training to stop them becoming NEET (not in education, employment or training), the commissioner says, adding that 42,000 teenagers were classed as NEET in 2017/18. 

The report also calls for more youth work schemes to take place over the summer to help vulnerable teenagers re-engage with society.

Research by the commissioner’s officer shows that many schemes have been cancelled due to the pandemic and warns that over-13s are at risk of being “side-lined” from plans because of an increase in health risks from Covid-19 compared with young children.

Longfield said: “This summer I am particularly worried that teenagers who have finished Year 11, who have seen their apprenticeship collapse, or have simply lost their way through lockdown will simply fall off the radar. Teenagers in colleges have so far been left out of catch-up funding.

“Many of these children, and I fear many thousands of other vulnerable teenagers, have had very little structure to their lives over the last six months. School was often a stretch for them, and I am concerned we are never going to get some of them back into education. If we do not act now, this could result in a lost generation of teens – dropping out of school, going under the radar, getting into trouble, and at risk of being groomed by gangs and criminals.

“We need to identify these children quickly and do whatever it takes over the summer to stabilise their lives and get them prepared for the structure of school again.”

In response, a government spokesperson said: "Schools and colleges have remained open throughout the pandemic to vulnerable children and those of critical workers, and we have worked across government and with the sector to make sure young people stay safe at this time.

"Ahead of a full return to school and college in September, we are expanding frontline charity support and helplines to reach more young people, working with local authorities and schools to ensure they have 'eyes and ears' on those at most risk, and supporting pupils leaving alternative provision this summer to stay engaged in education, employment or training. We are also investing £100 million in remote education, including devices and routers that help these children keep in contact with schools and social workers.

"This summer, schools and other out of schools settings will also be able to run holiday clubs and we have worked with the National Citizenship Service who will be running programmes of activities for teenagers across the country.”

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