Lost in the system: Children that go missing from Education.

I know a girl; she’s called Casey. She was the smartest in our class. You know, always getting the answers right, when most of us didn’t have a clue. To be honest, I’ve missed her. She’s not been in school for ages now, and last I heard she’d moved away from Manchester to get away from one of the local gangs. I wonder if she’s okay?
— Casey's Classmate, Aged 13

Just to set the record straight 'Casey' is a fictional character and so too is her concerned classmate. Sadly, the same cannot be said about her situation. In fact, in the 2014-15 academic year, at least 33, 362 children suffered a similar fate to our ‘Casey’ across 90 Local authorities in England and Wales (BBC 2016). These figures are especially compelling when you consider that children missing education are at significant risk of becoming victims of abuse, exploitation and unemployment (DFE 2016).

Worryingly, the information gathered from just 90 Local Authorities is most certainly underestimating the actual figure of children missing education in England and Wales. I am equally sad to report that Manchester came top of the pile with over 1,200 children missing education, 810 of which had their whereabouts unknown by the Local Authority. However, this figure does not seem as bad in context, as it represents only 1.6% of the amount of 5 to 16-year-olds living in Manchester that academic year. Still, it is 1.6% too many!

What are some of the key factors that make a child vulnerable of missing education?

While the phrase, "how long is a piece of string?", Is probably the most appropriate answer to the above question, I am aware that is not the most helpful response. Yet, it is true that there is a complex web of reasons why children end up missing education.

I can, however, provide a brief overview of the typical scenarios I have observed during my work with this vulnerable group of young people.

Change and transition

Success in education requires consistency at home as well as in the classroom (Special Education Guide 2016). However, we all experience challenging and transient times and it is in these situations that we draw on our support networks; parents, carers, extended kin, friends, etc. Tragically, for many children those support networks are either non-existent or completely unreliable, which makes difficult life events (i.e. exclusion from Mainstream School and referral to an Alternative Provision) a persistent reason children miss education.

Behaviour in school

Persistent disruptive behaviour was the most common reason for fixed term and permanent exclusions last year (DFE 2016) and Pupils who are excluded are more likely to go missing from education later on. A case in point would be the recent reports of an 11-year-old transgender pupil who was ‘shot with a BB gun’ (BBC 2017). I believe there are two victims here, the subject of this horrible attack, and the perpetrator. The impact on the confidence and health of the injured child is a disaster and should by no means be tolerated. Attending school and expressing your identity should never result in becoming the object of physical or emotional abuse. Conversely to the tone of the news report, the ‘bully’ who committed the offence is also a child. Children that intimidate others are usually the subjects of the very same abuse themselves. I would argue that the aggressor here is a prime example of how children who display behaviours indicative of abuse victims (i.e. bullying), can often become marginalised by the education system.

Uniform expectations

Our character, Casey, had been re-located to another care home because she is a child looked after by the Local Authority (LA). It is common for schools and colleges to struggle with providing education that fits around such a complex situation. Children are therefore expected to perform as their peers would, even though they are not certain where they will be sleeping at night. A situation I believe most would find distracting, to say the least.

Any Ideas on how to solve the problem?

Ofsted pointed to communication as a key factor in the success or failure of provisions aimed at supporting children vulnerable of missing education. I suggest adding to that; preventative measures and prompt project delivery. Moreover, rather than a ‘few sizes fits most' approach, would it perhaps be more effective to design a bespoke education package around a child's complicated situation?