Dame Rachel and The Missing Children (Part 1)

The year I retired, a family moved from our school at Easter. It was a planned move. The father had a new job; they had found a house they liked; parents and children were all excited to be starting a fresh chapter in their lives. A few weeks after they left, the father rang me. The council said his children could not start school until September. They would be missing more than three months of education. Could I help? Sadly, though I tried, the answer was no, there was absolutely nothing I could do.

It was not lost on this parent – how could it be? – that the same Local Authority which refused his children school places for three months was fining other parents for their children missing a few days of school.

Similar hypocrisy about the importance of school for children has been widely seen during the current pandemic. Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector (HMCI), Government Ministers, journalists and broadcasters have frequently painted the loss of learning due to Covid in almost apocalyptic terms. Robert Halfon MP, chair of Parliament’s Education Select Committee has talked of “a decade of educational poverty”; Michael Gove addressed Local Authorities specifically when he said: “if you really care about children, you will want them to be in school”; former HMCI Michael Wilshaw insisted schools would have to open in the evenings, at weekends and during the holidays to catch up.

Now, the Children’s Commissioner for England, Dame Rachel de Souza, has launched an enquiry to find out what has happened to 80,000 – 100,000 “children who have ‘fallen off the radar’ and not returned to the classroom after lockdown.”

The truth is that children in England missing out on school is nothing new, and it affects far more than 100,000. A report for the Local Government Association published in 2020 states: “Our best estimate is that in 2018/19, more than a quarter of a million children in England may have missed out on a formal full-time education… Depending on how one defines ‘formal’ and ‘full-time’ it could be closer to 200,000 or over 1 million.”

Linking the issue of “missing children” to Covid, as Dame Rachel is doing, suggests that over the past 18 months thousands of young people have taken advantage of pandemic turmoil to absent themselves from education, and thousands of parents, concerned for their own or their children’s health, have kept their children at home. For Dame Rachel, this is a problem caused by parents and pupils themselves, whereas the real scandal – or rather, series of scandals – is that some schools, most Local Authorities and many Academy Chains routinely and knowingly deprive large numbers of pupils of their right to an education and the Department for Education is complicit in this.

Scandal Number 1 is at least 3,000 children with SEND who have no educational provision at all. In the words of the Local Government Association’s 2020 report, Local Authorities do not have enough money: “adequately to fulfil their responsibilities in relation to ensuring all children receive a suitable education.” There’s a shortfall of at least half a billion pounds in SEND funding nationally. And this is rising.

Scandal 2 is a forced rise in Home Education (EHE). EHE is an option chosen by some parents because it suits their circumstances and they believe it is better for their children, but in 2019 the Office of the Children’s Commissioner found the number of children being home educated (42,000) had doubled in 5 years and was increasing by 20% every year. Mike Wood, owner of the website Home Education UK, speaking to Schoolsweek in 2018 explains this by stating that some schools have created a “hostile environment” for pupils with SEND.

This “hostile environment” is not just a product of funding. The press publishes lists of the “best” schools and naturally school leaders want to be on them, but unfortunately these lists are based entirely on test and exam results. Meanwhile, as I explained in my last blog post, being inclusive can harm a school’s Ofsted grading. These are powerful incentives for some schools and academy chains to deliberately make themselves unwelcoming to pupils who may require a little more effort or may find it more difficult to achieve high test scores.

The same powerful incentives work to produce scandal number 3. In 2019 Ofsted published a report on off-rolling which found over 20,000 pupils across the country who did not progress to Year 11 in 2017-18 but left their secondary schools at the end of Year 10. “For about half of these pupils”, Ofsted wrote, “we did not know their destination because they had not moved to another state-funded school.” Dame Rachel knows all about this scandal. The Guardian reported that the Inspiration Trust lost 5.4% of its Y10 pupils to an unknown destination in 2017-18. CEO of the Inspiration Trust at this time was the very same Dame Rachel who last week got very exercised about children missing education and promised the BBC: “Literally, I am going to go out and find them.”

It is, of course, illegal to push pupils away, exclude them, off-roll them, or deny them a school place because they have SEND, are expensive to teach, or are unlikely to shine in public exams. These are children who have more need of the very best our education system can provide; they do not deserve to be cut adrift.

But this is only the beginning. You will have noticed that the Local Government Association report estimated 250,000 children were not in school, while the scandals mentioned above account for only around 35,000. There are even bigger scandals which involve much larger numbers of pupils and are equally, or even more, shocking and upsetting.

I will write about those scandals next week.

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