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Where are England's Children?

March 2022

Under the Education Act 1996, LAs in England have a legal duty 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. The Children’s Commissioner’s office is undertaking research to establish the extent to which LAs are able to meet this duty by understanding the data each authority holds about the numbers of children in education settings or who are not engaged in formal education. We are also conducting deep-dives into 10 LAs, where we are speaking to children, and in particular, the children labelled ‘hard to reach’. We have spoken to hundreds of children across the 10 LAs we are auditing and plan to reach many more over the course of our project.We sent an initial survey to all LAs in England (of which 145 responded) requesting that they provide the following information under Section 2F of the Children Act:

1. The number of children enrolled in education, broken down by phase and education type: LA maintained, Academy, Independent (non-state funded).

2. Estimates of the number of children persistently absent and severely absent in the autumn term 2021.

3. The number of children home educated for the 2021/22 academic year and registered with the LA. We also asked whether they have an estimate for the number of children home educated who are not registered with the LA.

4. The number of children in the LA who missed a week or more of school in the Autumn 2021 term due to waiting for a school placement.

5. The number of children missing from education aged 11-15 and the number NEET aged 16-17.

We found that:

1. All LAs knew how many pupils were registered in LA maintained and academy schools in Autumn 2021, but just 18% of LAs provided an estimate of the number of children in mainstream Independent Schools.

2. Half of LAs provided estimates for persistent absence and severe absence. The average rate of estimated persistent absence (missing over 10% of sessions) was 22% and the average rate of severe absence (missing over 50% of sessions) was 1.5%. In total, we estimate that there were 1,782,000 pupils persistently absent and 124,000 pupils severely absent in the autumn 2021 term.²

3. All LAs in this sample were able to provide estimates of the number of registered Elective Home Educated (EHE) children, but only 8% of LAs provided an estimate on the number of home educated children not registered with the LA.

² It is important to note however, that the absence figures include Covid-related absences, at a time where children had to isolate for 7-10 days as per self-isolation guidelines.

4. 39% of LAs provided data on the number of children who missed more than a week of school in Autumn 2021 waiting for a school place

5. 92% of LAs could estimate the number of Children Missing Education aged 11-15 and 88% provided estimates of NEET.

From these key findings, we do not have an accurate real time figure of how many children there are in England, nor where they are – let alone the number of children not receiving education. This is an urgent concern. Estimates of children missing from education require timely, real-time data on the number of children in each LA, how many are enrolled in formal education and the number of EHE children.

In this report, we outline the key survey findings, and set out the Commissioner’s initial recommendations in light of the data, on: school level data collection, LA level data collection and the roles and responsibilities of all public bodies in relation to safeguarding and promoting the welfare of these children. Initial policy recommendations include:

1. School level data collection: we need to review how schools collect data and how this is used.

• Attendance codes (e.g: use of the B code, and review of the new Covid 'X' code)
• School-level attendance policy enactment (e.g: closing registration early)
• Rationalizing the management systems for attendance

2. LA level data collection: we need to review and improve attendance data collection at LA level.

• Implement a unique identifier for children
• Improve and standardise the protocols for sharing data between MATs and LAs
• Understand facilitators of good data collection and share and what works

3. well, including data and tech solutions to eliminate the lottery and boundary issues Roles and responsibilities: we need to clarify roles and responsibilities and align resources, data and accountability on attendance. This includes:

• Setting clear structures for who does what – schools, LAs, health, police
• Promoting what good looks like, including partnerships at a local level, including safeguarding partnerships and schools role in those
• Multi-agency working

4. Make attendance everyone’s business:

• Making sure all government departments work together to improve attendance
• Making sure that all professionals working with children prioritise attendance as a key outcome

Children have told us that they face a number of additional barriers to attendance, including lack of support around mental health, emotional and care needs, and problems around feeling safe and supported in school. We want to find out more, so, right now, we are conducting deep-dives into 10 chosen LAs to understand the story behind the attendance survey statistics. We are speaking to children, and in particular, the children labelled ‘hard to reach’, such as children with Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs), children who have been excluded or who are at risk of exclusion, children in alternative provision (AP), children in pupil referral units (PRUs), young carers and children in care to properly understand their experiences with attendance. We have also spoken to families, schools, Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs), LAs, family hubs, AP and PRUs and a range of specialist youth services across the country. Through these conversations, we hope to build a real picture of the enablers of, and barriers to, attendance at a local level. Some of our initial reflections from the deep dives are included within this report. All potential solutions discussed this report will be further investigated in the second phase of our work, after we have completed the deep-dive analysis and evidence review.

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