Tougher laws needed to track disappearing pupils, says Chief HMI. Will the Gov’t ignore this safeguarding issue as it focuses on getting the Education Bill through Parliament?

Janet Downs's picture
It went something like this. John (not his real name) said he might be leaving school at the end of term. He gave us a name of the school he said he would be attending. John didn’t return at the start of the next term so we assumed he’d left although it was odd his parents hadn't said anything. We sent off his GCSE coursework to the new school. A couple of weeks later we received it back. John was not a pupil there.

We never found out where he’d gone.

It brought home to me how easy it was for children to disappear. That was twenty years ago. The problem still persists. And it’s a serious safeguarding issue, says Sir Michael Wilshaw, Chief HMI.

Ofsted has completed focused inspection of schools in Tower Hamlets and Birmingham. It was during these that Ofsted became concerned about the possibility of ‘high numbers of pupils’ being deleted from school registers without schools or local authorities having any idea where they had gone.

Sir Michael said most schools and LAs complied with the law* but inspectors had found worrying examples of ‘inconsistent’ recording of children leaving, poor communication between schools and LAs, and ‘inadequate systems’ for tracking pupils leaving independent schools.

Most disturbingly, inspectors noted schools had no legal duty to keep records about where pupils go after being crossed off admission registers. And LAs aren’t required to check where these children are.

Inspectors found that when schools recorded reasons for pupils leaving, these were often vague such as ‘gone to live with grandparents’, ‘moved to Manchester’, ‘gone to Libya’ or ‘moved abroad’.

This casual attitude was putting children at risk, Sir Michael wrote. It made it ‘very difficult, if not impossible’ for schools and LAs to identify children in danger from the majority who would be experiencing a suitable education in state or registered independent schools or being home-schooled.

‘We cannot be sure that some of the children whose destinations are unknown are not being exposed to harm, exploitation or the influence of extremist ideologies. We do not know whether these children are ending up in unregistered provision,’ Sir Michael told Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan.

Sir Michael urged Morgan to review and ‘considerably’ strengthen the law around in-year transfers. He wants heads to be required to record details of onward destinations, send the information to their LA and highlight cases causing concern. The tougher requirements should lay down what action LAs must take when onward destinations aren’t known.

Whether Morgan will take note of Sir Michael’s strong urging is unclear. But this is one example of an important issue, along with teacher supply and school funding, which should be in the minds of the Education Secretary and her ministers. However, it appears pushing the Education and Adoption Bill through Parliament is more important than tackling such concerns. But children are at increased risk when politicians’ minds focus on school structure rather than safeguarding.

*Education (Pupil Registration) Regulations 2005 (particularly Regulations 8 and 12).
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Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 14/07/2015 - 19:32

There is a problem here in collecting the data. The LA Children's Services department is supposed to be responsible for the care and welfare of all children, but can it compel Academies and Free Schools to provide the data needed? Who audits the data? At one time it would be the Education Welfare Service, which had access to the school roll and attendance registers of all LA schools. EWOs checked our registers weekly and liaised with our Year Heads and the Pastoral Deputy Head in relation to pupils going on and off the school roll.

Do EWOs still exist in all LAs?

EWOs have no rights of entry or to any school data in the case of Academies and Free Schools do they?

It would be madness if Independent Schools (fee paying and state funded) provide data separately and on a different basis to LA Community Schools.

The Chief Inspector is absolutely right that these data need to be collected and the movement of children documented with intervention as appropriate.

Can it be done in the present fragmented system? I have my doubts.

Barry Wise's picture
Wed, 15/07/2015 - 10:54

I find some of the language used here seriously alarming. It is not the business of schools or local authorities or Sir Michael Wilshaw to be "tracking" children's movements from school to school. It seems to me a grotesque breach of the right to privacy that people should be considering keeping such records or think they have any right to pry on where families move.

Janet says "It brought home to me how easy it was for children to disappear."
Disappear? From whose line of sight? Almost certainly NOT that of the family......

The law is clear when it comes to home schooling, for instance. It is only necessary to inform the LA you are home schooling if you remove the child from a special school. Otherwise there is no legal requirement to inform.

That is as it should be. Where children are enrolled (or not....) is for the parents to decide and know...... no one else.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 15/07/2015 - 12:17

Sorry Barry, I can't agree.

There seems little doubt that significant numbers of children are at risk of FGM, forced marriages and enrolment at unregistered institutions that would fall short of required standards in a number of areas, not to mention honour killings (or other murders), enslavement, prostitution/sexual exploitation and forced labour.

I personally think the rules on home schooling need updating.

It is legally established that the state has the duty to protect children if their safety or human rights are threatened.

In my view EWOs used to do an essential job. In my experience they were always very professional and skilled in making appropriate interventions when necessary.

They are much missed.

Guest's picture
Wed, 15/07/2015 - 13:33

I agree that it is necessary to maintain a watching brief for children to monitor and respond as quickly as possible should they become missing from education. Yes, I realise this sounds somewhat like a big brother strategy but it is perhaps a necessary intrusion to ensure the child protection/safeguarding is maintained. However, this can be contained to the children of compulsory school age (extending to vulnerable young person). It follows that if a child is registered as being home educated then that is where the monitoring stops.

As a national community we would be heading down a very dangerous difficult road if every child and vulnerable young person was tracked. How tightly, how often and who defines what constitutes an appropriate environment? This scenario would smack of a draconian approach that limits personal liberty, choice and freedoms.

mistemina's picture
Wed, 15/07/2015 - 13:58

Two years ago, I would have unreservedly agreed tracking every child was a draconian approach limiting liberties. However, in the past 2 years 600-700 people have been estimated to have been radicalised and gone to Syria. A good proportion have been under 19 yrs of age. I cannot see how we can prevent this dreadful migration without tracking.
Do not advocate tracking, I do not have alternatives either.

Barry Wise's picture
Wed, 15/07/2015 - 15:27

If the Police Anti-Terrorist squad or MI5 think it necessary to track schoolchildren, then that is a matter for them and I certainly would not complain. But it is not the job of a Headteacher.

It is hard enough for schools to perform their statutory safeguarding duties for the students they have on roll. Asking them to be responsible for students who have "moved to Manchester" is absurd. As for Ofsted being in the front line of the War on Terror..... absurd. Wilshaw is just empire building.

A Cooper's picture
Wed, 15/07/2015 - 15:17

Quite agree Roger. Who, apart from the DfE, are academies and free schools answerable to? In my LA we still have EWOs regularly visiting non-academised primaries.

I am not sure moving the responsibility of tracking children's whereabouts to head teachers is the solution. Ultimately, parents are responsible for ensuring their children are in education and the onus should be on them to inform the LA of their child's whereabouts. Perhaps, like registering a birth, it should be made a criminal offence not to register your child at a suitable school within ten days of moving home in the UK. I am not sure how anyone could police movements out of the country, particularly when some families do 'moonlight' flits back to their country of origin.

A Cooper's picture
Wed, 15/07/2015 - 15:23

I suspect that parents still claim Child Benefit for children who appear to have 'disappeared' from the education system so that should provide one method of tracking them down. Bit of joined up thinking from some government departments wouldn't go amiss.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 15/07/2015 - 16:09

It is important that children cannot 'disappear'. I agree it is not the job of headteachers. But in a proper joined up education system it would be the job of EWOs and LAs. When a family 'moves to Manchester' then the old EWO asks the family for the new address. They then pass the information to the Manchester LA, whose EWO pays the family a visit and helps them get the child onto the roll of a suitable school. When enrolled, the new school contacts the old school and asks for records to be passed on. At that point the last school can fill out the appropriate form and the new school likewise.

In the mid 1990s we took a number of Kosovar refugees into our school. One family moved to Manchester. This was tracked by our EWO service. Within six months the family moved back and the child was readmitted back into our school. At no time was the child not a responsibility of either the Cumbria LA or the Manchester LA.

This doesn't seem like big brother to me - just LAs accepting their responsibility to ensure children are safe and helping parents get the best from the (then) joined up education system. The key staff were EWOs.

We don't have a joined up education system any more. We have a fragmented one, where even if EWOs existed then Academies and Free Schools would not be obliged to co-operate with them and LAs would not now provide the service for them unless the non-LA School purchased it.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 15/07/2015 - 16:16

I don't need to add that it's completely barmy and dysfunctional. And all the fault of New Labour allowing independent Academy schools to take over valuable state owned community assets.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 15/07/2015 - 16:15

Barry - Wilshaw isn't arguing for heads to find these children. He wants tougher laws which state what action LAs should take after schools raise concerns. In the case I highlighted, all that would be needed was for the school to let the LA know that John had left the school and we had no idea where he had gone. Wilshaw wants schools to have a statutory duty to report concerns. He wasn't suggesting heads act as private eyes and find the children themselves.

It does not follow that in pointing out that a large number of children are deleted from school registers and the system is lax in discovering where they've gone that Ofsted is in the front line of the War on Terror. The possibility of radicalisation was but one of Wilshaw's concerns. As Roger highlighted, there is also the problems of forced marriages and taking girls ways to have their genitals mutilated. Added to these are the possibilities of children being hidden from view and being abused, neglected or used as domestic servants.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 15/07/2015 - 16:24

I think Wilshaw will be out of luck. This government wants to take responsibilities away from elected LAs, not make them an essential part of the education system.

Now what about a G4S Child Tracking Agency with executives on huge salaries and the low paid operatives on zero hours contracts only being paid when summoned to do a particular job?

Guest's picture
Wed, 15/07/2015 - 16:26

It is not and never has been a HTs responsibility to track and monitor either incoming or outgoing school age children; and neither could they. But as I recall it was (and may still be) a responsibility of a HT to report the departure of child. The latter could simply be a move to another school in the same authority or advising the authority of a departure (and where known the arrival locality and hopefully an address). I was doing these reports in Northumberland as a DHT in 2004-06. This was part of the children missing in education drive under the last Labour regime.

Since 2010 this has become a rather more difficult area activity because of the Coalition and now Conservative drive on quasi-independent state schools who are not accountable to local authorities.

I think the radicalisation spectre is covered by the requirements of the Prevent strategy, which is not tracking or reporting pupils movements but rather the reporting of concerns. In terms of FGM this too is already covered by CP and Safeguarding procedures and like the former does not entail tracking pupil movements but instead focuses on reporting concerns.

Jane Eades's picture
Wed, 15/07/2015 - 17:28

On a slightly different tack, a teacher at an academy told me that she theoretically had a class of 12/13 but only 1/2 were turning up. When she queried this, she found that the others had been told they were excluded but the local authority had not been notified, neither had the proper notification been sent to parents.

Following her query, the local authority contacted the school and the children returned to their classes.

Pupils are not just disappearing because parents are not tracking their children. In local authority schools poor attendance figures would have been queried, even in London where children may have come from several different local authorities. If schools don't have a responsibility for safeguarding, who does? Putting all the responsibility on parents just isn't good enough, particularly if the child needs to be made safe from the parents.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 20/07/2015 - 07:48

More than 400 pupils have gone missing without trace from Bradford schools in the last 2 years, the Bradford Telegraph and Argus reports.

Dapplegrey's picture
Mon, 20/07/2015 - 20:31

How would tracking stop them going to Syria? Would they be stopped from boarding a plane? How would it prevent them entering Syria via another country?

Guest's picture
Tue, 21/07/2015 - 17:50

For me the key aspect of this issue - the reporting or pupil departures - that is missing is that of clarity. That is to say, in his letter SMW appears to treat schools as generic (i.e. all schools irrespective of category: phase, academy, free school, LA school) but then intermingles academies when discussing other issues e.g. Birmingham and Tower Hamlets and special measures. What is missing is a clear safeguarding protocol regarding reporting pupil departures irrespective of the type / category of school. For example, the departure of and removal from roll of a pupils attending an LA school must be recorded and reported to the LA (including destination whenever possible to ascertain) and likewise academies and free schools must report to either their sponsor or directly to DFE/EFA: in the case of there being no sponsor the report should go direct to the DFE/EFA. other than that I am at a loss as to what a HT/Principal can do.

Alternatively, the prescribe departure report must in all cases be reported to the LA who whenever practicable will have responsibility to verify arrival at the destination and/or report concerns to the local police for necessary action.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 21/07/2015 - 19:12

The solution is to give the responsibility for tracking ALL pupils to the LA in which they reside regardless of the type of school they are in. It's not difficult at all if the will is there. All schools would have LA forms to complete whenever a child is taken on to a school roll or removed from one and all schools would be legally required to co-operate. LAs would have to employ teams of Education Welfare Officers whose job it would be to account for every child up to the age of 18.

Don't tell me it can't done - it used to happen, or something very like it.

Will the government take the route that works - of course not. The reason is ideological. They don't want elected LAs to have any essential role in the national education system. They are determined to privatise it, regardless of the consequences.

Guest's picture
Wed, 22/07/2015 - 10:59

We agree on a way forward (albeit de ja vous - we both remember a former process that worked).

I am not convinced that any opposition to coordinating pupil movements through LAs irrespective of the type of school has anything to do with government ideology relating to having an "essential role in the national education system". Why? The issue to hand is about Child Protection/Safeguarding which transcend education.

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