1.7 million children, that’s a huge 1 in 4 are consistently absent from school states a new report by the Children’s Commissioner.

And, if this isn’t worrying enough the report goes on to state “We do not have accurate figures of how many children are missing in education. Local authorities do not have the accurate data or the systems in place to know where these children are, if they are safe, healthy and receiving any education.”

The ‘Voices of England’s Missing Children’ report from the Children’s Commissioner, Dame Rachel De Souza, comes following an Attendance Audit and a survey of all local authorities (LAs) in England to understand the cohort of children who were not attending school regularly, and those who were missing from education altogether. The report raises how this is commonplace across LAs and in fact, is a national scandal and it made me think back to when this shocking situation first came to my attention.

It was back in 2016/17, the start of the process of national academisation of schools when I was managing an alternative nurture provision for primary-aged children. The process sadly led to the area I was working in having all the local primary schools close, bar one who refused to join the academy, and the creation of one big academy serving a large geographical area.

This particular area of the country was, and still remains, in the top third of multiple deprivation in the UK and is home to high numbers of children living in poverty and exposed to a range of other early adverse childhood experiences (ACES) that often go hand in hand with poverty, such as parental stress and mental health issues, drug and alcohol dependency, domestic abuse and high teenage pregnancy.

As part of the closure of schools and the academisation process, I was shocked at this time to hear how the Academy was intending to cut its Published Admissions Number (PAN) and reduce the numbers of children it had provision for. So, with limited spaces, not all of the children in the local area would receive a school place.

There were some families who were not within easy walking distance of the new academy and some children struggling with SEN and SEMH needs that were not welcomed and appeared not easily accommodated in the new provision. In the initial stages of this process and as the academy opened there were high levels of exclusions and increasing numbers of children being ‘educated at home’ as the academy established its expectations.

There were daily stories of parents saying they would ‘home school’, keep their children at home, or children just not turning up to school and becoming lost in the system, if there was any system at all.

I remember many conversations with LA officers asking how this could be happening. Where was the provision to meet the needs of the many children who were now absent from school, who were apparently being ‘home schooled’ or just not attending and had little or no alternative provision available to them?

What shocked me the most was that LA officers stated plainly that they had no idea just how many children were out of school, were being home educated, what the quality of home provision was like or how many families were just not taking their children to school, and had given up on the system. Some families were just making the decision to not send their children to school and there were no measures in place, no safety net and no safeguarding processes in place to educate and protect increasing numbers of children.

This new report ‘Voices of England’s Missing Children’ verifies this as being commonplace across other LAs and in fact as being a national scandal. It is hard to believe how this can be happening in so many areas resulting in so many children ‘lost’ in a system.

With this report bringing the issue into the light we are now being faced with a moral imperative to get this right and ensure that: “Critically we know where they are and that they are safe.”

With the goal of 100% attendance for all children, we are a long way from that and the report highlights the need for a system that is designed for and around children, using their and their families voices as a catalyst for making things better. At the moment we cannot be confident that every child is happy, healthy and safe. We need to be sure that the support mechanisms and care are in place to support families so that there is access to wider services and teams around schools with strategic consideration of a whole approach to wellbeing. We need everyone who has a role in children’s lives to design and implement systems and service with this same vision at the heart.

The report shares recommendations as ambitions in six categories.

Six ambitions to account for every child

  • Ambition 1. Ask, Listen, Communicate: decisions about children’s education need to be made with children, their families and other adults in their lives.
  • Ambition 2. Meet children where they are: all children receive support in school, through families of schools.
  • Ambition 3. Exclusion as a trigger for intervention: children should receive a fantastic education, regardless of setting, and always receive targeted support following exclusion or suspension.
  • Ambition 4. Letting children be children: no child should feel that they need to miss school to support or care for their family.
  • Ambition 5. Attendance is everyone’s business: school leaders have a relentless focus on attendance and work together with LAs to ensure children are supported to be in school and to attend regularly.
  • Ambition 6. No more ‘known unknowns’: lack of information should no longer be the reason why children are not receiving a suitable education.

The report goes on to highlight the need for every child to have the opportunity to develop at least one trusted relationship with a teacher or key adult and how it is “even more important that teachers and support staff are able to be patient and show children that they care about them.”

From my time working in mainstream settings as well as alternative provision, I believe it is vital that there is a culture of kindness and one that understands and holds wellbeing at the centre of everything.

Having a well-supported pastoral team and targeted safe intervention with key adults that actively build relationships with children particularly when they’re coping with adversity, are anxious about being in school, or as a result of trauma is essential, so that they are able to access school and education.

All schools need pastoral and nurture provision so that there is a range of intervention available but schools also need teams around them with integrated services to offer support, services and real help on a day-to-day basis for families coping with challenges or adversity. As the report echos, ‘LAs should convene partnerships working across schools and wider support services in their local area to create a ‘team around the school’ – this needs to include support from children’s services, supporting family’s teams, family hubs, SEND services, mental health teams, youth offending teams and police.’

This needs to be valued and supported financially with a society-wide commitment to create communities, services and provision for all so that every child is safe and engaged in a rich and aspirational education system with the pastoral depth to meet social and emotional as well as learning needs.

The report and the ambitions it highlights comes at a time when our children’s futures are held in the balance and when the levels of adversity are at record levels. We are beginning to hear the voices that are there to be listened to and learnt from and it’s now time for the strategic vision, courage, determination and rigour to ensure we have a system where children and families receive the best outcomes for all.

Dame Rachel de Souza Children’s Commissioner for England
SENsible SENCO Webinar with Clare Williams Hamish & Milo Author

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