Some children in care ‘missing from school and becoming invisible’

Some young people in care are being failed and allowed to become “invisible” to the services which should be supporting them, the Children’s Commissioner has said.

More than 1,000 school-age children in England who had been in care for at least four weeks as of March last year were missing from school, research shows.

The research suggested that some groups of children with vulnerabilities were more likely to be out of school, including unaccompanied children seeking asylum.

More than a fifth (21%) of school-age unaccompanied children seeking asylum (UCSA) were not in school as of March last year.

This compared with 2% of non-UCSA looked-after children who were not in school.

Children’s Commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza said while the numbers are small, that makes it “all the more shocking that we are allowing children in care to be failed like this”.

Her office used data from 149 of the 152 local authorities in England which showed that of the 50,846 school-age children who had been in care for at least four weeks as of March 2022, 1,363 (2.7%) were missing from school.

Of this figure 541 were not enrolled with any school or education provider, 673 were in unregistered settings, such as private tuition or home education, and 149 were enrolled in a school but missing without authorisation 100% of the time.

Dame Rachel said: “Making sure children in care are in school every day and getting the education they are owed by law is the absolute minimum I expect from local authorities, as their ‘corporate parents’.

“They should be advocating for these children just as any other parent would, as their first and best champion.

“The attendance of these children needs to be at the top of every policymaker’s agenda – we cannot wait until they leave care to start trying to transform their outcomes. It starts with education.

“These are not big numbers, which makes it all the more shocking that we are allowing children in care to be failed like this, becoming invisible to many of the services designed to support them.

“These are children for whom being in school is a protective measure and the chance to build positive, caring relationships.”

Other findings showed that more than two thirds (68%) of looked-after children not in school were male, 10.1% of looked-after children who had previously attended a state-funded alternative provision were not in school, compared with only 1.5% for state-funded mainstream schools and 3.6% for state-funded special schools.

Some 5.1% of looked-after children who had previously attended a school rated inadequate by Ofsted were missing education, compared with 1.9% for schools rated good or outstanding.

Dames Rachel’s recommendations include increasing support for children in need to access education, updating and expanding pupil premium plus (the dedicated funding for looked-after children, which is designed to support them in their education), supporting children with particular vulnerabilities to thrive in school, and increasing accountability and collaboration across the system so vulnerable children are safe and supported.

James Bowen, assistant general secretary for school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “While the vast majority of children in care do attend school regularly, we should be very concerned about the small percentage that are currently not attending any school at all; particularly as we know that schools can provide a vital layer of protection for some of our most vulnerable children.

“Reasons for pupils in care missing school are usually complex and varied, and include issues such as mental ill health, as well as a feeling of difference to their peers. This can be exacerbated by the distance between school and a care placement.

“The support these young people require is intensive and complex.

“Schools play a vital role in supporting children in care, but they certainly can’t do this alone – where children are absent from school it is essential that other services step in and support too.

“Central to the response to this issue should be a properly funded and well-resourced social care service that has the capacity to give these young people the level of support and care they need.”

Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “We agree with the Children’s Commissioner about the importance of all children in care attending school on a regular basis, and echo their call for a mandatory register of children who are not in school.”

She echoed the call for better funding, adding: “A decade of government austerity has resulted in cuts to council support services, while school budgets have been stretched to breaking point.

“If schools are to provide the pastoral and specialist support that many children in care will require in order to regularly attend school, then appropriate funding has to be put in place.”