Children Missing Education and Child Sexual Exploitation. Silent and Invisible

Statistical data concerning school attendance that has been recently released by the Department of Education has highlighted a continual concerns regarding children missing education. Although the overall trend for school attendance is improving there is still a significant concern over the numbers of pupils who are deemed to be persistently absence. Persistent absence is defined as a pupil who misses 56 sessions of education during the academic year or 46 sessions if a pupil is 15, this highlights the significant amount of education that these children are missing. This equates to 28 days of full time education that has been missed, just short of a month off school, how many employers would put up with this level of absenteeism and what about the financial cost of schooling and the expensive support that some children with SEND access!

There has been numerous research studies that has established the link between good school attendance and academic achievement (Arthurs, 2014 & Gottfried 2011, Hancock et al 2013, Krenitsky Korn, S 2011)however we still have this entrenched behaviour in many of our schools yet little research into why children miss so much school on a regular basis. I have no doubt that there are multiple factors and influences that can determine what can cause children to miss school but the plain fact is that we still have significant numbers of children who are deemed to be persistent absentees in this country.

Analysis of the data also has shown that in several areas of the country where there has been high profile cases in the national media and successful prosecutions concerning CSE, there are still some schools that have unacceptably high numbers of pupils with high persistent absence. How can this be, if children are not in school , where are they, are they safe and who is looking after their well being. Section 175 of the Education Act 2002 carries an explicit duty that all schools ( including academies and free schools) have a specific duty to safeguard children and just as important to promote their well being. If children are invisible due to their absence how can schools fulfil this statutory function. Article 28 and 29 of the UNCRC (1989) gives children the right to an education but if children are not in school who is enforcing this right. With CSE in mind we know from serious case reviews and multi agency reviews that significant numbers of victims did have poor school attendance levels and In many cases the children do not have the ability to “help themselves” or the support to help improve their school attendance was not forthcoming or understanding of the complex nature of exploitation was inadequate. There is also evidence from numerous serious case reviews and local inquiries that schools are often the place that disclosures occur, overtly by a child telling someone or covertly by the behaviour that they are demonstrating or by a third party “Saying Something “. This does highlight the need for more vigilance from schools, academies and the collective support networks out there both voluntary and statutory regarding children missing education and the lost opportunities for children to have access to support . If they are not in school they are by default invisible and silent, not absent but “missing” and as such vulnerable to exploitation.

There has recently been a consultation from the College of Policing about removing the category of “Absent” from individual Police Forces risk assessment process as it has been an unhelpful description of a child’s status and can have the effect of minimising the risk assessment outcome. When we hear the final result of the consultation we will put the findings onto our web site, however as we have a national picture within the Police community of the ambiguity of the word “absent” is this now not the time to also look at how absent is defined from a schools perspective.

What would be the outcome if schools listed children who were not attending for unknown reasons as “missing” what would we think would be schools and external agencies i.e. the Education Welfare Service, Youth Offending, children’s social care and multi agency teams and the Police response to a child who is missing from school.

Is there a societal view that missing from school is OK and does not carry the same risks as being missing from home? We should all know that this is not the case, how many of our children have been victims of significant abuse that took place during school hours…a serious question to ask ourselves!

Recently we have seen in the national media a parent from the Isle of Wight who took his case of a prosecution for taking his child out of school for a term time holiday to the high court and won his case, he successfully argued the ambiguity of the word “regular” within the context of absence from school. This attracted reams of newspaper articles for and against the parent but one thing was missing in all of the media hype was the voice of the child. This is quite often the case in many circumstances regarding children and especially victims of CSE. Schools, agencies and the media can be caught up in minor disputes concerning the context and understanding of small words such as absent or regular yet both of these two words have attracted a lot of national media interest and the attention of the High Court yet our most vulnerable children who can quite often be the persistent absentee are often silent and invisible, two more descriptive words that rarely attract the same level of interest.

Kevin Murphy