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Every child in the UK of statutory school age, that is a child aged between 5 years and 16 years, is entitled to an education; this entitlement is enshrined in legislation, the Education Act 1996. However, Sky News has just reported (September 2022) that nearly 100,000 “ghost children” have stopped going to school in the UK, and that more than 1,000 schools in disadvantaged areas have an entire class-worth of pupils missing. They state that around 93,000 pupils have simply vanished and fallen off school registers since the COVID pandemic began.
The number of pupils in schools in England reached just over 9 million in 2021/2022, an increase of 88,000 from the previous year. This figure includes all state-funded and independent schools. The number of schools has also increased by 41, to 24,454.
In March 2022, cross-party MPs warned of an “epidemic” of educational inequality exacerbated by the loss of learning caused by COVID-19 lockdowns. Chair of the Education Select Committee Robert Halfon MP said, “According to the Children’s Commissioner, over 124,000 ‘ghost children’ have still not returned to school. It is also particularly concerning that the Centre for Social Justice reported that before March 2022, 13,000 pupils in exam-critical years were missing from the system and the latest figures published by Education DataLab suggest that 5% of pupils were severely absent from September to May of this year. We cannot risk these children becoming an ‘Oliver Twist’ generation, slipping through the cracks and lost to the system forever”.
What is CME?
A Child Missing in Education (CME) is defined by the Department for Education (DfE) as “a child of compulsory school age who is not on a school roll, nor being educated otherwise (e.g. privately or in alternative provision) and who has been out of any educational provision for a substantial period of time (usually four weeks or more)”.
There is a slight difference between CME and persistent absence of statutory school aged children from school. Persistent absence is where pupils are identified as persistent absentees if they miss 10% or more of their possible sessions. This is based on their individual absence level, not by comparison to a national threshold. A session is one morning or afternoon in school. This includes absence with a positive COVID case. 10% of sessions translates to around 7 days of absence across the term.
However, both are an issue for education professionals, local authorities and the Government, who have all said that they are prioritising finding solutions to tackle both issues in order to get children back into school. The Department for Education (DfE) has said that finding these children and improving attendance is a priority for them. According to them, there will be a renewed focus on maximising pupils’ time in the classroom.
This is such an important issue to tackle, as the negative effects on these children can be immense and may affect the rest of their lives. Children missing in education (CME) do not benefit from the daily monitoring and oversight ordinarily available through contact with professionals compared to children on roll at a school. This can mean missed opportunities to support families and vulnerable children. CME have also been found to be at greater risk of harm, including exploitation and radicalisation. These children miss out on learning opportunities, which can lead to poor outcomes in later life. CME are less likely to take up further educational opportunities or find employment when they reach school leaving age.
Why may children miss education?
Some of the most common reasons why children are missing in education include, but are not limited to:
- Children/families with unrecognised/unmet special educational needs.
- Children at risk of cultural or unlawful practices, for example forced marriage/FGM.
- Children at risk of sexual exploitation/trafficking.
- Children in domestic servitude.
- Children looked after (CLA) and care leavers.
- Children of parents with known long-term medical, emotional or mental health needs or misuse of drugs/alcohol.
- Children playing a key role as carer in their family.
- Children who cease to attend school due to exclusion, illness, bullying or other school-based issues.
- Children who dip in and out of Elective Home Education at the request of parents/carers.
- Children who do not transfer to secondary school when they should.
- Children who have become parents themselves.
- Children who have behaviour or attendance concerns.
- Children whose name has been removed from a school roll in error.
- No school places are available when a family moves to a new area from the UK or abroad.
- Parents “withdraw” children from school due to a dispute or disagreement with school staff.
- Parents not realising at what age a child should start primary school. They do not start school when they reach statutory school age and so fail to enter the educational system.
- The family have experienced domestic violence and have been placed in a refuge.
- The family move house regularly, or become homeless or there are other domestic issues.
- The family move out of the area without notifying the school.
For some children and young people certain life events/circumstances may make them more vulnerable to becoming CME.
The DfE guidance lists the following groups as more likely than others to become CME:
- Children at risk of harm/neglect.
- Children of Gypsy, Roma Traveller (GRT) families.
- Children of service personnel.
- Missing children and runaways.
- Children and young people supervised by the youth justice system.
- Children who cease to attend a school.
- Children of new migrant or refugee families.
What happens if a child goes missing from education?
According to the Local Government Association (LGA), children missing education do not form a homogenous group and are not always easy to identify. Local authorities have a duty under section 436A of the Education Act 1996 to make arrangements to establish the identities of children in their area who are not registered pupils at a school and are not receiving suitable education otherwise. This duty only relates to children of compulsory school age; that is children between the ages of 5 years and 16 years.
The local authority should consult the parents of the child when establishing whether the child is receiving suitable education. Those children identified as not receiving suitable education should be returned to full-time education either at a school or in alternative provision. Some children who are missing from education can be identified and supported back into education quickly, but other children who have experienced more complex problems face tougher obstacles to getting back into suitable education. Local authorities should consider the reasons why children go missing from education and the circumstances that can lead to this happening. Local authorities should have in place arrangements for joint working and information sharing with other local authorities and agencies. These are outlined in the statutory government guidance Working together to safeguard children.
Local authority CME officers support and advise schools, colleagues or families in relation to CME. The role of the CME officer is to work to support families, alongside other appropriate professionals, by clarifying all available options and removing barriers to the identification and take-up of educational provision.
The majority of CME are successfully located, and educational provision established following reasonable enquiries and casework support. For any CME that remain untraceable, as whereabouts unknown, normally a local authority CME lead officer retains such cases and periodically will make a search of national databases to see if these individual’s whereabouts are now known. If successful, the case will be reassigned to a CME officer. If unsuccessful, the CME lead officer will continue to make periodic checks until successful or the child is beyond statutory school age.
What are the parents’ responsibilities for CME?
Attending school regularly is key to ensuring good exam results. Parents have a legal responsibility to make sure that their children attend school regularly.
This means the child:
- Attending school every day.
- Arriving at school on time.
- Attending every lesson.
Any requests for leave of absence during term time must be sent in writing, with plenty of notice, to the head teacher of the child’s school. Generally, leave of absences during term time are agreed only in exceptional circumstances.
Some parents may elect to educate their children at home and may withdraw them from school at any time to do so, unless they are subject to a School Attendance Order. If a parent notifies the school in writing that they are home educating, the school must then delete the child’s name from the admission register and inform the local authority of this. However, where parents orally indicate that they intend to withdraw their child to be home educated, the school should consider notifying the local authority at the earliest opportunity.
There are consequences if parents do not ensure regular school attendance. Penalty notices may be issued to parents for unauthorised absences, persistent lateness and missing lessons by their child. If unpaid after 42 days, these can be referred to a magistrates’ court. If convicted, the parents could receive a criminal record.
What are the schools’ responsibilities for CME?
Everyone who is involved with children and families has a role to play in CME. The Children Act 2004 places a duty on all agencies, including schools, to work together to promote the welfare of children and to share information. All schools and academies including independent and free schools, have a statutory duty to provide the local authority with specific information about all leavers, no later than the time at which the pupil’s name is removed from the register, and to notify the local authority within five days of adding a pupil’s name to the admission register.
There are a number of scenarios in which a pupil can be taken off the school registration roll, and the local authority informed.
- The pupil is transferring to another school and the original school is aware of which school this is.
- The pupil is to be electively home educated.
- The pupil is transferring to another school (either in or out of the county) and the new school is unknown.
- The pupil is moving out of the country, where the school is known or not.
- The pupil has been permanently excluded.
- The pupil has been absent for more than 20 days and meets the necessary criteria to be taken off the roll.
- The pupil has left an independent school, excluding permanent exclusion and home education.
- The pupil is leaving at the end of Year 11.
- The pupil has had their School Attendance Order revoked.
- The pupil can no longer attend school due to medical reasons.
If none of the above reasons for leaving appear to be relevant to the pupil’s situation, check all of the reasons for leaving and then contact the local authority if required. All schools have a key role to play in the early identification of potential CME and should follow their own school’s established safeguarding referral procedures, as appropriate.
What steps should be followed for CME?
If a pupil is absent, all schools have a responsibility to contact the parent or carer on the first day of absence and continue to make every effort to locate the pupil.
Day 1 – A member of school staff trained to do so, telephones the child’s home to find out reasons for the absence and reassurance from a parent or carer that the child is safe at home:
In the event of no response from either landlines or mobile contact, the member of school staff should call back regularly and risk assess after two hours.
When the parent/carer answers the call and the child is safe with them, ask for the reason for absence and record it on the school’s attendance management system.
If the person answering is not the parent/carer and the school is not reassured that the child is at home or safe, then the school’s designated lead for child protection/safeguarding should be consulted on a risk assessment and the degree of vulnerability of the child.
If the parent/carer answered the call, the child is not with them or safe and the parent is concerned, then the school should advise the parent to contact the local police station to inform them that the child is missing. The parent/carer should also contact all the people and places the child is known to talk to and visit, to tell them that the child is missing and ask if they can help to find the child, by providing information which may shed light on the child’s whereabouts or actively searching for the child. The parent/carer should also contact the family GP and A & E near where the child lives and goes to school, in case they have sustained an injury and been taken in for medical treatment.
Ensure that the parent/carer reports back to school if the child is found or remains missing.
Day 2 – Follow up phone call – a subsequent telephone call must be made by the school to the parent/carer to ascertain the situation. If there is still no response then ….
Day 3 – Write to/email the parents/carer. Write or email using plain English, asking for contact to be made with the school immediately, give the parents/carers three working days to make contact and if you are aware that English may not be the parent’s first language, copy the letter into a language that may be more accessible.
Day 5/6 – A home visit – arrange a visit to the home address ensuring that risk assessments are in place.
Once a school has completed these checks, or within 10 days, whichever is earlier, if the child has not been seen and the parents or carers have not made contact, schools must report the child as missing from education to the local authority.
How to report CME
Every local authority will have its own procedure for reporting CME and will generally have a dedicated Children Missing Education team. Most local authorities offer an online reporting system for schools to report their concerns.
However, in the following circumstances a referral to Children’s Social Care and/or the police should always be made promptly by the school:
- The child may be the victim of a crime.
- The child is the subject of a Child Protection Plan.
- The child is the subject of Section 47 enquiries.
- The child is Looked After.
- There is a known person posing a risk to children in the household or in contact with the household.
- There is a history of the family moving frequently.
- There are serious issues with attendance.
If you are a member of the public and you are concerned about either your own child’s attendance or the attendance of a child that you know, you should speak to the school in the first instance so that they can raise concerns with the local authority on your behalf if necessary.
How can children missing in education be reduced?
Vigilance and robust record-keeping and reporting processes are key to reducing CME by schools. Children who have failed to take up a school place or who have been unexpectedly absent from school for five or more consecutive school days are potential Children Missing in Education. In order to safeguard these children and ensure that they are able to access education, schools and other educational establishments must investigate the whereabouts of these children. Investigations should include attempts to make telephone contact with all family members, home visits and liaison with partner agencies such as the School Admissions Service, the Revenue and Benefits Service and Multi Agency Safeguarding units. Every school must adhere to the statutory guidance provided in the most recent version of Keeping Children Safe in Education.
In some cases, these children and young people can only be identified via other agency involvement, and this requires strong partnership working and clear referral mechanisms. There is a range of proactive approaches that local authorities and their partner agencies can take to reduce the risk of children and young people not receiving a suitable education.
Existing good practice falls broadly into the following categories where the local authority introduces measures to:
- Provide named points of contact to receive notification of children and young people from other agencies.
- Identify vulnerable groups and individuals who are recognised as being at greater risk, ensuring that they receive appropriate support and tailored provision.
- Reduce the likelihood that children and young people fall out of the education system through transition tracking and audits of the rolls and registers of schools.
- Ensure full usage of and training related to lost pupil databases.
- Follow up cases where children and young people are known not to be receiving a suitable education at home and use existing section 437 powers of the Education Act 1996 to issue a School Attendance Order if needed.
- Ensure ongoing monitoring and tracking of vulnerable groups including those who have been excluded from school, looked after children and those registered as receiving education otherwise than at school.
- Identify and locate children and young people who are not receiving a suitable education, via truancy sweeps.
- Follow up admission applications that do not result in a school place and unsuccessful admission appeals.
- Re-engage children and young people with appropriate educational provision, for example via multi-agency panels to broker admissions.
If a child is not in school, they are at significant risk of underachieving, becoming socially isolated, and becoming NEET (not in education, employment or training) later in life. Children who are not accessing a suitable education are also considered to be at risk of neglect and other forms of harm and abuse. This is why it is important to make dealing with CME a priority.