The simple fact of the matter is too little is known about the thousands of children who are missing education. The only way to piece together a national picture of the children who drop off the school roll and don’t receive a suitable education elsewhere (for example, through home schooling) is by conducting a freedom of information request – but the data returned by local authorities varies wildly.
The National Children’s Bureau has published the best estimate possible about this hidden group of children, showing that 49,187 children were reported as missing education (CME) at some point in 2016/17.
And this isn’t just about missing out on learning. These children are, to quote the Government guidance on the issue, at ‘significant risk of underachieving, being victims of harm, exploitation or radicalisation, and becoming NEET’, underlining that the impact on individual children can be acute.
I am struck by this fact when watching the animations we have produced to accompany publication of our research. These fill in some of the gaps about what we know about CME; to remind us all about the vulnerable children, often living chaotic lives, who lie behind the statistics.
Take July for example. July is a fourteen year old girl who found it difficult to make friends at primary school. Later diagnosed with autism, July started missing lessons in secondary school and then stopped attending school entirely. She started attending a special school but wasn’t able to get the help she needed; she’d get into arguments with teachers and run away. The school kept suspending July because they said they couldn’t keep her safe. With no other schools nearby that could help, July stopped attending school altogether and instead spends her time alone at home, while her mother is out at work.
Another example is Amil, a nine year old boy living with his Mum, brothers and sisters. Short term housing placements means that Amil moves house, and school, nearly every year. Sometimes he only spends a few weeks in a new home, so doesn’t go to school at all. When he does attend a new school, it is hard for him to make new friends and he has no one to play with. When Amil finally gets a placement that lasts over a year, he starts to make friends and progress in his learning, but the threat of the next move is always hanging over him.
These stories are based on qualitative research that we conducted into the experiences of CME. This research found that a series of complex and often interrelated factors cause children to drop out of education.
It can be because of the individual child’s feelings and experiences or mental health. It can be because of problems in the family, for example, domestic violence, family breakdown, or caring responsibilities. Or it can be a problem with the school environment, such as the school not meeting the needs of a child with special educational needs or disabilities, unsuitable placements, unofficial exclusions or bullying. Finally, the problem might stem from wider issues such as moving to or from abroad, moving into a different local authority or to do with gender or cultural issues.
I was reminded reading through these stories that two common themes were often apparent in these children’s lives. Often, the child was growing up in a low-income family, and there was also a likelihood that the child could have come to the attention of other services. This could have been because a risk of abuse or harm had been noted by social workers, or because other professionals had raised a concern, such as the police noting a child at risk of falling into crime.
This is borne out by the data from our latest Freedom of Information Request. As well as asking local authorities about the numbers of CME, we also asked whether these children were receiving free school meals and whether they were known to social services. While the availability of this data was patchy, we found that 22% of children recorded as CME were in receipt of free school meals when last on a school roll. This compares with only 13% of all children in the same local authorities. When it came to links with social care, data from 94 local authorities shows that 15% of children recorded as CME are known to social services. We don’t have a figure for how many children across the country are ‘known’ to social services, but we do know that 5.5% of all children were referred to social services in 2016/17.
Again the data for both questions varies greatly between local authorities with no clear explanation why, but it seems that differences in data recording and collection may account for some of this variation.
This is frustrating in the extreme. These findings hint at the varied and profound challenges that children recorded as CME face, and underlines that they are clearly in need of urgent support. Yet national Government does not even gather in one place the little data held at a local level.
The Government has a chance to act: the statutory guidance for local authorities is due for review in 2019 and must be updated to achieve a better standardisation of data, including information such as eligibility for free school meals and whether the children are known to social services, so that we get a better understanding of the overlapping vulnerabilities within this group.
Only when central Government collects and publishes reliable local data on CME, will we start to understand this hidden group of children better, and have a better opportunity to support their route back into education and ensure their needs are met.